The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Virtual Visitation

What is Virtual Visitation?

Virtual visitation refers to the use of electronic communication tools, as a means of furthering parent-to-child communication, for the purpose of promoting the bond between parents and their children, following a divorce or separation.

Using services such as Skype or other internet-based video chat technologies, parents can stay in contact with their children much more. Virtual visitation can also encompass email, social media, and texting.

The term "virtual visiation" is being used by family courts. When the court refers to virtual visitation, they are typically addressing the right of the noncustodial parent to contact his or her children using these electronic technologies.

Why did virtual visitation become a family law issue with regard to child custody?

The National Center for State Courts reported that almost 35 million children in the United States do not have married parents, and a quarter of these children have parents that live in different cities from each other. This means approximately 9 million children have what may be considered a long-distance parent/child relationship.

Because of this, and the framework of the best interest of the child doctrine, family courts have sought enhancements in modern technology as a way of alleviating the problem of children growing up estranged from one of their parents.

Who typically uses virtual visitation as part of their custody arrangement?

The intent of virtual visitation is generally assumed to apply to long-distance noncustodial parents, who are not able to be physically with their children to extent necessary to maintain a strong parent/child bond; however, virtual visitation does not have to apply only to long-distance parents; it can apply to custodial parents, as well.

Even parents with joint physical custody can set up times where they communicate with the children on days when they do not have the children in their care.  When both parents are able to respect the children’s relationship with the other parent, it can reduce conflict and lead to a better post-divorce relationship for the entire family.  Virtual visitation is widely used tool for child-centered parents that are able to co-parent with their former partner.

Can virtual visitation be part of court order?

Yes. Several states in the U.S. have laws that require virtual visitation. Utah was the first state to enact a virtual visitation law, but others have since followed. If parents live long distances from one another, virtual visitation can significantly help parents maintain a bond with the their children. Courts recognize that, and they sometimes will include language in the court order that stipulates rules regarding virtual visitation.

When a court order addresses virtual visitation, it may address the type of technology to be used, the times it should occur, and other details about the virtual visit.

What are some common ways that divorced parents might utilize virtual visitation?

Online video chat
Services like Skype, Facebook Video, Apple Face Time, and Google Video are common ways for parents to have conversations with their children where parents and children can actually se each other. By seeing each other and being able to talk live with one another, parents and children can stay up-to-date on the latest events in everyone's lives.

A phone can be thought of as virtual visitation, and parents should be allowed to call and speak to their children often, without interference from the other parent.

Emailing is useful for older children, and it has the benefit of being relatively private. This assumes that the child is the only person with access to the email account.

Live Chat
IM (Instant Messaging) services are free and commonplace. It may be less awkward to use chat services instead of email or Skype, because of the reduced formality of it. If both the children and the parent are online frequently, leaving a live chat service on most of the time can be a great way to communicate impromptu messages, whenever they happen to be available.

Social Media
Friending your children on social media sites such as Facebook can allow you to stay up on several facets of their lives. You not only get to see them, but you get to see their friends.  You get a good understanding of who is in their life if they are active on the social media site.

Because Facebook is such a controversial service for younger children, who may be prone to cyber-bullying and inappropriate posting, it is a good idea for parents to be able to monitor their children’s Facebook accounts for questionable behavior.

Text Messaging
As children approach adolescence, it is common for them to have a phone capable of text messaging.

How can virtual visitation help parent/child bonding after a divorce or separation?

Virtual visitation doesn’t need to be complicated or costly to be effective. The most important aspect is simply that it is consistent. A simple way to incorporate virtual visitation in a custody agreement is to have a specific time on certain days where both the child and the parent know it is time to be available in whatever medium they use. If possible, parents and children using virtual visitation should be able to have their private time, and share anything they wish to chat about.  This simple act can prevent many negative effects of divorce by maintaining the parental bond.

Virtual visitation should not be viewed as a replacement for actual visitation or parenting time with children. Rather, it is a supplement to it, that if used properly, can dramatically enhance the relationship that a parent has with their children.

What are some negative effects of divorce on children that might be alleviated by virtual visitation?

Research shows that children of divorce tend to get lower grades, have more behavior issues, are at an increased risk of committing a crime, are significantly more likely to live in poverty, and have sexual intercourse before reaching adulthood more often, when compared to children of in tact families.

Many studies indicate this same trend; however, the actual cause of these effects cannot be determined to be from the divorce itself.  Rather, it seems to be that the lifestyle after the divorce is the primary impetus leads to these problems, and it so happens that many divorced parents enter a post-divorce life that makes children vulnerable to these problems.

While no guarantee that children won’t experience negative effects, if divorced parents are committed to high quality parenting which, might include a regular virtual visitation schedule, children are significantly more likely to have a strong bond with both parents, and may therefore have a better chance of becoming well-adjusted as they grow older.

What are some issues that parents may have with virtual visitation?

It is important for parents to be consistent with regard to communicating with their children. Long gaps between times when parents and children communicate can leave children wondering if their parent still cares. In order to maintain a strong bond and prevent awkwardness, parents should set up a routine schedule where they can virtually communicate with their children.

Parents and children deserve the right to have private communication, without the other parent knowing what was said between them. Some parents with primary custody may not abide by this, which can lead to conflict and have an increased potential for parental alienation. When children do not have as much physical time with the noncustodial parent, virtual visitation is an important way to promote bonding.  To do that, privacy is critical.

Parents should not question their children about what was discussed with the other parent while the were engaging in virtual visitation. When parents have sole physical custody of their children, they get the privacy and time they need, simply by the nature of their custody schedule. The noncustodial parent deserves that same right.

With younger children, privacy is simply impractical. Children younger than five, typically cannot maintain focus enough to hold a conversation on the phone or video conferencing application. Since younger children cannot yet read, emailing them is also not something that can be done with privacy, so for virtual visitation to work with younger children, it is necessary to have the other parent being willing to help.

Along with privacy, interference is an issue that some divorced parents face with regard to virtual visitation. A common scenario is when one parent tries to talk with the children online or on the phone, the child is "not available".  The custodial parent has a responsibility to make sure the child is available to talk with their other parent when they are supposed to.

Inappropriate purpose
Some parents may inappropriately use virtual visitation as a means of observing what the other parent is doing. For example, they may take screenshots of the images of the home to use against the other parent. It is important for parents not to abuse the privilege of being able to communicate their children.


Virtual visitation example
Just a great ABC news story on an actual virtual visitation experience!
The legal side of virtual visitation
Learn the states that have virtual visitation laws, and discover pros and cons to virtual visitation in child custody arrangements.

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