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Divorced parents using children's cellphones as tools of control

Divorced parents may need to impose restrictions on their child’s cellphone use in order to prevent former spouses from undermining their role, Markham family law lawyer Andrew Feldstein tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Feldstein, principal of the Feldstein Family Law Group, worries that a child’s cellphone can quickly become a tool of control by one parent over the other, with some using its location-tracking mechanism to follow a child’s movements when they are in the care of an ex.

In addition, he says the smartphone can also become an instrument of surveillance of the other parent, as well as the child.

“I’ve heard of parents who ask a child to walk around the house during Facetime or Skype conversations on the phone, or to take pictures of personal possessions,” Feldstein says.

He says constant phone calls or text messaging between the child and the non-caregiving parent frequently concern topics such as bedtime, vacation activities and meal choices.

“A mother or father might tell the child to excuse themselves during dinner so that they can report back on what’s being eaten,” he says.

Whatever the subject, Feldstein says excessive communication can become a way for the non-caregiving parent to “investigate and control” what the other is doing.

“The message that’s being sent is that the other parent isn’t qualified or equipped, which undermines them and is harmful to the child,” he says.

“In my opinion, there needs to be a limit on communication because parents shouldn’t have an unfettered ability to communicate with children during days when they’re with the other parent,” says Feldstein.

The subject can be a tricky one to broach, but Feldstein says parents who suspect a phone is being used in a controlling manner should set clear rules for its use while the child is in their care. The reasons don’t have to be framed in terms of surveillance by the other parents, he adds.

“To begin with, you can have a discussion with the child about the location service, and indicate your desire to have it switched off because you don’t feel a need to follow them around at all times, as you trust the child,” Feldstein says.

If the feature is to be left activated, many phones allow emails to be sent to account holders whenever the “find-my-phone” service is used and that both parents should be signed up to receive them, he says. 

“That keeps both sides honest,” Feldstein says.

In addition, he says a no-screen-time policy at the dinner table can help limit communication between the child and the other parent.

“Let your children know in clear and certain terms that while they’re in your house, they live by your rules. And when they’re with the other parent, that’s who sets the rules there,” Feldstein says.  

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