A Tale of Divorce and Social Media

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Over the past two decades, digital media has infiltrated our daily lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, social media is playing an ever-growing and important role in the formation of new relationships as well as in relationship dissolution. So, on-line dating sites link people who would otherwise never cross paths and social media sites can help maintain relationships. On the other hand, digital media may also contribute to relationship breakdown. For example, excessive use of social media has been cited as an example of unreasonable behaviour and subsequently sanctioned as grounds for divorce in the family court.

Social Media feeds Social Media

On top of all of this, we are seeing the creation of self-perpetuating circles of social media: because of our easy access to social media, unusual cases related to social media and divorce more readily come to light. An example of the phenomenon is this unusual case from the family court in Rome, which was reported in the mainstream news this week. The story runs like this: Italian parents to a 16 year old boy are presently going through divorce proceedings. Their son complained to the family court that his mother was using social media to post pictures of him online without his permission. The ruling of the court came down on the side of the son – Italian copyright laws were invoked to determine that the son, being the subject of the photographs owned the copyright (in contrast UK copyright law states that the person who took the photograph owns any copyright).

The upshot of this decision from the Roman court is that if the teenager’s mother publishes photographs of him online, without his permission, she will be in breach of Italian copyright law. If she persists in posting photographs of him, she could face a fine of 10,000 euro (£8,900). In addition, the court ruled that she must remove any images of her son that are currently posted on her social media accounts and she will have to pay him for posting new pictures in the future.

Social Media and Divorce

So, while unusual, this story illustrates how social media can be incorporated into divorce proceedings: and its role is growing. The current law on divorce in the UK requires that a reason is given for the marriage breakdown. Family lawyers working through divorce cases are noticing a rise in complaints that a partner’s constant use of social media is amounting to unreasonable behaviour, which is then used as a reason for the divorce.

An example of this was reported in Metro in 2017. In the article, a woman described how her husband’s continual use of his mobile phone internet, led to her feeling disregarded and ignored. Her citation of this behaviour, included with other similar examples, permitted the divorce due to his unreasonable behaviour.

Divorce Statistics in England and Wales

According to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of marriages that end in divorce in England and Wales is around 42%, with half of these occurring within the first 10 years of marriage. In 2016, unreasonable behaviour was the most common ground for divorce, with 36% of husbands and 51% of wives petitioning on these grounds. The same was true of same-sex couples, who have been allowed to marry since 29th March 2014. Unreasonable behaviour accounted for 96% of divorces of men and 93% divorce of women.

Despite these statistics, you may be surprised to discover that since 2003, there has been a decrease in the rates of divorce in England and Wales. The reason is that in the 21st century, many people are opting to cohabit rather than legally marry. If a long term cohabiting relationship breaks down, a divorce is not required.

It seems that as long there is no provision for a ‘no-fault’ divorce in UK law and as long as cohabiting relationships are not legally recognised, unreasonable behaviour on behalf of one partner will continue to represent the most common ground for granting divorce. Excessive and intrusive social media use is becoming more frequently cited as an aspect of unreasonable behaviour. So what should you do in terms of social media, if you find yourself facing a divorce?

Caution Advised

In general, if you are going through a divorce, it is usually advisable to keep away from social media as much as possible. This is because once divorce proceedings are in motion, any posting you make can be used in evidence against you. For example, if you are going through a case for custody of your children, but there are photographs of you intoxicated at a party, this may count as evidence of your unfitness to parent properly. The same goes for joining an on-line dating site before the divorce is complete, as this may be used as evidence of being unfaithful.

The Future of Social Media and Relationship Breakdown

It will be interesting to see the impact of social media on divorce cases in the next five years. Certainly, the trend seems to be towards an increase in the role of social media in this aspect of life and law. The Office of National Statistics quoted above do not take into account the number of cohabitation relationships that have broken down in 2016. For these cases, the role of social media can only be anecdotal at best. It is therefore entirely possible that the contribution of social media to relationship breakdown is much more common than we realise, yet the numbers remains invisible to The Office of National Statistics and to us.

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