I’ve been wanting to do a piece on this forever, so I’m finally getting around to it. “This” is the concept of “virtual parenting,” which means that parent-child contact occurs online. As we all know, the vast majority of parents with primary custody are mothers – 84% according to the United States Census Bureau. There was a time, not too long ago, that a custodial parent could thwart the non-custodial parent’s visitation rights by the simple expedient of moving away. So if Dad and Mom were divorced in Texas, Mom could just move to California, Florida, Maine or elsewhere with the kids and watch Dad try to visit them every other weekend. Fat chance.
So non-custodial parents and fathers’ rights advocates started complaining and courts listened and agreed that, if visitation rights were to have any meaning, the parent with primary custody couldn’t just move away any time for any reason. Courts and legislatures started imposing limitations on move-aways and altering custody arrangements when they did allow them. For example, a court might expand the dad’s summer or holiday schedules to balance his inability to have regular weekend visitation. Now, as this article shows, the pernicious concept of “virtual parenting” has wormed its way into family law (FindLaw.com, 11/2/10). “Virtual parenting” is accomplished by Skype or similar technology that allows people in different locations to see each other via webcam and talk at the same time. Now, no serious person believes that talking to a child for a few minutes a night via Skype constitutes actual parenting. Indeed, the thrust of almost all social science on the subject of parenting post-divorce is toward greater equalization of time and responsibilities between the two parents. That’s because the post-divorce legal paradigm of the non-custodial parent having visitation every other weekend plus Wednesday night has made the NC parent more of a babysitter than a parent. Sociologist Susan Stewart calls these parents ‘Disneyland Parents’ because the limited time they have with their children deprives them of most real parental interaction. They become not so much parents as grown-up friends. So they get pizza on Friday night and rent a movie. On Saturday they go to the zoo and on Sunday the kid goes back to Mom. In the meantime, Dad has made no real decisions, offered no real guidance, received and given no real confidences. Small wonder that non-custodial parents tend to drop out of their children’s lives over time; they want to be parents not placeholders. Well, if the existing system is bad (and make no mistake, it is) because it tends to separate fathers from their children, “virtual parenting” is incomprehensibly worse. Here’s what the article says about Utah dad Michael Gough:
In news reports, Gough has states (sic) that when he had spoken to his daughter over the telephone, their conversations had lasted an average of five minutes. In contrast, he says, when he started using video calls via the Internet to connect with his daughter, conversations lasted for an average of fifteen minutes and occasionally went on longer.
Fifteen minutes and sometimes longer! And this is a guy who’s promoting “virtual parenting.” What he’s actually promoting is the fact that 15 minutes on Skype is better than five minutes on the phone. I say we need to do a lot better than both. As is so often the case, “virtual parenting” online started with the best of intentions in a case with extreme facts. (There’s a saying in the law that “bad facts make bad law” and this certainly bears it out.) In Baker v. Baker, a New York judge found that a custodial mother who was destitute and whose house was being foreclosed needed to move to Florida to look for work. In that case the judge agreed that Dad’s visitation via Skype would be an acceptable substitute for his regular visitation. So in that case, there was a dire necessity on the part of the mother to move away. (Was a transfer of custody to the dad considered?) No one thought of virtual parenting as anything but a desperate last resort that would make the dad’s contact with his child more complete than it otherwise would be. But as sure as the sunrise, what began with necessity will morph into convenience. So maybe Mom doesn’t really need to move, but her career opportunities might be enhanced if she did. And after all, it’s not like Dad won’t be able to see little Andy or Jenny; he/she will be right there on Skype for as much as 15 minutes at a time! Count on it. If we don’t enact laws that strictly limit the use of virtual parent-child contact to those situations in which the use of the Internet would actually improve matters, we’re asking for ever-greater loss of father-child relationships. Judges must be expressly forbidden from considering the availability of Internet access as a factor in deciding to allow one parent to move away from the other parent. The availability of telephones hasn’t been so used; the availability of online access shouldn’t be either. Until those laws are passed, “virtual parenting” will continue to grow and be used to diminish the contact between non-custodial parents (mostly dads) and their children. Thanks to John for the heads-up.