Raising kids in the digital age is tough. Not only are kids going through baffling developmental stages and life crises, so are their parents. Plus, each family member has a unique personality, belief system, and behavioral history that lead to varying “fits” between members at varying times. Throw that in a blender and you have a family. To make it more complicated, divorce peaks during trying times, upending everything even more. Divorce conflict, shared custody, and blended family issues can lead to exploitative and manipulative opportunities, especially with powerful mobile devices in-hand.
In my twenty-six years as a clinical psychologist with a specialty in family transitions, I have run across practically every family situation you can imagine. Not only can divorce strain parent-child alliances, but fear can muddy parent judgment as they jockey to win child favor and aim to achieve parenting perfection in less-than-perfect times. With everybody distracted by their own emotional processes, consistency and communication too often slip leaving kids vulnerable for risk.
Here are three fictional family stories that resemble actual situations to illustrate the complex factors that divorced families face.
Safety, Parental Alienation, & Home Privacy
Sally and Joe were married for fourteen years. They have two daughters, 13-year-old Maggie and 10-year-old Jacqueline. The marriage dissolved when Joe was discovered having an affair with Pamela. Sally shared too much information with the girls during her heartbreak, blaming Pamela for the breakup and begging Joe to make the marriage work even after discovery. Pamela and Joe married six months after the divorce was final and were granted shared custody of Maggie and Jacqueline as well as Pamela’s son and daughter.
Sally didn’t trust Joe and Pamela to take good enough care of the girls. She constantly worried about Joe not checking the girls’ homework, believed Joe and Pam drank too much, thought Pamela favored her own children, and became particularly angry if Joe socialized with old friends. The girls felt protective of their mom and felt guilty leaving her during dad’s custodial time. They also wondered if mom’s fears were true and they were being unfairly treated and not adequately attended to.
Sally bought both girls mobile phones outfitted with the social media they wanted and encouraged them to call, text, and send images frequently with the hopes of gathering evidence she could use in family law court. She also posted accusatory memes about Joe and Pamela on her Facebook. If Joe set limits with the mobile phones, Sally argued the restriction prevented the girls from seeking appropriate help in an emergency situation, which further demonstrated to the girls that Joe was not protecting them.
In her cloud of grief, fear, and anger, Sally was committing parental alienation. Parental alienation is a pattern of psychological abuse toward a child by creating fear, disrespect, or hostility toward the other parent with the ultimate goal of parent-child estrangement. Parental alienation has been demonstrated to be detrimental to child mental and physical health and parent-child attachment. When caught in the destructive dynamic, family members are nearly incapable of post traumatic growth, spinning helplessly for sometimes years in the eye of the storm.
John is a twelve-year-old who’s divorced parents have conflicting views on screen use. John’s father allows him to use his phone and
other screen devices as much as he likes with no filtering or monitoring. His mother, on the other hand, does not allow him to use ANY screen devices. What John does not know is that his father secretly installed spyware on his mother’s devices during their divorce in order to gain information against her and has a history of domestic violence and pornography addiction. John’s mother has a restraining order against her ex-husband. She does not feel safe having mobile devices in her house that her ex-husband has purchased in case of spyware. She also worries about the online content her son has access to for fear of him becoming addicted like his father. John prefers to be at his father’s house because of the more permissive screen access and accuses his mom of being too uptight and paranoid. His dad laughs with him and agrees.
Consequating Dangerous Child Behavior
Dave and Laura have been divorced for two months and have two sons, 16-year-old Chad and 14-year-old Ian. After the divorce, both boys were living with their mother with weekends and certain holidays spent with their father. Chad has AD/HD and an anxiety disorder; Ian is in independent study due to oppositionality and defiance.
After suspecting Chad was using drugs, Dave demanded to see Chad’s phone. When Chad refused, Dave grabbed the phone and found photos of Chad smoking marijuana at a house party. A screaming conflict resulted. Chad stormed out the house and walked several miles back to his mother’s house where she then called Child Protective Services. Dave insisted that Laura take Chad’s screen devices away as a form of punishment. Laura disagreed thinking it would isolate Chad from his friends at a time he needed them most and bought Chad a new phone with no filtering or monitoring. Chad has chosen to live full time with Laura and refuses to talk to Dave. Ian feels caught in the middle.
Co-parenting can be difficult in all family types, but shared custody poses particularly ripe opportunities for exploitation and manipulation during a time when parents need to be particularly astute about the prevention of digital injury due to unchecked screen use. To launch a healthy and safe relationship with screen media, kids need warm, encouraging guidance from their parents.
Parents who set standards and praise without being overly critical have well-adjusted kids. Theorists call this authoritative parenting. Evidence demonstrates it is better than uninvolved, permissive, (overly accepting), or authoritarian (overly controlling) parenting styles.
Authoritative parents are proactive rather than reactive. They set the stage for success and respond calmly rather than ignoring or being overly punishing in response to destructive child behaviors. Children from authoritative home environments not only achieve more in school, but they also demonstrate a stronger willingness to seek out and master challenges for personal satisfaction.
In the stories above, the parents let their divorce conflicts interfere with their parenting judgment and slipped into authoritarian or permissive styles. While authoritarian parenting promotes a form of structure for the child, the harshness and rigidity can lead to parent and child aggression and can cause the child to have low self-esteem and minimized self-worth (Paul, 2011).
On the other hand, permissive parents are kind and accepting but don’t implement safety measures or uphold rules. Thus, the children can become entitled, depressed, or anxious (Paul, 2011). Even parents who were once authoritative will sometimes escalate their tendencies in order to counterbalance the strategies used in the other custodial home. This leaves kids ping ponging between sometimes hostile perspectives and varying rules for conduct. They will often choose the more permissive parent due to their inability to recognize the long-term implications of their behaviors.
In response to these challenges, family law courts often refer or order parents to use educational resources like co-parenting classes, schedule sessions with supportive professionals like child psychologists, therapeutic and legal mediators; or even order minor’s counsel to represent the children’s best interests. Parents may also be ordered into individual or reunification therapy which can lead to positive change.
When working with co-parents, I strive to empathize with the very real challenges of single parents and working through issues that make kids hard to handle. I remind them the situation is usually temporary. In most circumstances, grudges heal and parents recognize that parenting must take priority over vindictiveness. Kids will eventually see manipulation, often resulting in delayed insight. Nobody wins. Patience, empathy, grace, and kindness help kids heal. Sometimes we all need lots of nudges and gentle reminders, whether it comes from family, friends, lawyers, judges, or mental health professionals. Kids come first.
Thank you to Ventura family law lawyer extraordinaire Joel Bryant for the valuable information he contributed to this GKIS article and to CSUCI intern Allie Mattina for her research. To best understand the complex developmental factors of family life and learn effective screen safety strategies, check out Screen Time in the Mean Time: A Parenting Guide to Get Kids and Teens Internet Safe. Full of developmental brain facts and helpful tips and information, setting structure and sensible teaching conversations is a great start to family safety and stability.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty