The internet has impacted the ways in which virtually every sector of the American public interacts with the world around them.
From FaceTime sessions with distant family and friends to posting pictures and videos of one’s everyday life, social media has great potential to foster connections, but also the power to harm those who use it. Many legal entities are beginning to consider the ways in which tech and social media factor into family law disputes, and the results promise to be interesting.
With constant access to communication, technology in family law cases can be both a blessing and a curse. Children and partners have a pervasive link to their loved ones that can be used in cases of emergencies or when visits would otherwise be inconvenient, but the promise of instantaneous contact can cause upsets just as easily as it can serve both parties.
Behavioral scientists cite tech-related instant gratification as an emerging phenomenon in our increasingly digitized society. Social media and screen usage stimulates our brains in unprecedented ways, supplying us with dopamine rushes when we do things such as watch funny videos or get texts from a friend. Technology addiction is now considered a type of behavioral disorder, and with children being raised for the first time alongside the internet and advanced tech such as social media and AI, this tendency towards digital dependence and instant gratification is unlikely to subside.
Courts will likely have to include discussion of over-access to communication and the accompanying instant gratification in any changing family law policy. Although tools such as video-chatting or texting can connect parents and children or romantic partners in previously impossible ways, they can also create opportunities for harassment or visitation abuse. In cases where digital contact between a parent with visitation rights and their child is deemed appropriate, for example, courts may feel an increased responsibility to impose boundaries on the type of communication and when contact is allowed to occur in order to protect the child.
Law in some states surrounding electronic communication, however, is clear that digital contact does not equate to visitation. For instance, North Carolina law states that texting, phone calls, and video chats should be used to supplement visitation, not to replace it. The fact that a parent has electronic contact with a child holds little weight in courts, and is not typically used to persuade judges in custody or child support matters.
In a similar manner, technology can have interesting effects within domestic disputes. Digital violence can cause a great deal of harm in cases of divorce or abuse, with cyberstalking, hacking, or releasing compromising photographs shared digitally between two individuals, are all classified as criminal despite their digital nature. These actions, despite being limited to the internet, can cause victims to experience long-term trauma including PTSD, anxiety, and comparably high rates of suicidal tendencies. Leaking privately-shared intimate photos has only recently received attention from courts, with 48 of the 50 states creating statutes specifically related to that offense.
Social media has the unique role of serving as the platform for many of the aforementioned interactions, both positive and negative. With the rise of influencer culture over the past few years, however, an entirely new legal controversy is beginning to form in the minds of both lawmakers and the public.
Many lifestyle influencers popular on social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and TikTok post everything from their grocery shopping trips to their daily outfits to what their children eat for lunch. As content focused on child-raising and family life grows in popularity, however, a question at the intersection of family law, entertainment law, and labor law may be brewing.
Historically, the idea of children as laborers has sparked public outrage. Since the birth of the Industrial Revolution, law after law to protect children has been passed, but lawmakers tend to find themselves playing catch-up as labor evolves. As the leisure sector grew, children found themselves working not in mines or factories, but on stages and in front of cameras. Law such as the Coogan Act and state-level regulations protect child screen actors by mandating that a portion of their earnings be put into a trust fund, but no such protections exist for child social media stars.
Defining labor within the digital confines of the Internet is tricky business. Many popular personalities on social media consider creating and posting content their full-time job, with much of their income relying on ad revenue, monetization within the platforms, and private sponsorships. When parents monetize content featuring their children, however, the question of whether or not that child is working remains.
Certainly, in some cases, a child’s day-to-day life is not affected by a parent filming them. Recently, however, family social media accounts have been facing criticism for allegedly exploiting their children. In 2020, YouTuber Myka Stauffer and her husband announced their decision to “rehome” their autistic child Huxley, whom they adopted from China. Dozens of videos detailing the process of adopting and integrating Huxley were monetized and featured advertisements. Those videos featuring Huxley were estimated to have brought the Stauffers tens of thousands of dollars, but there have been no reports that the child or his guardians have seen any of that money.
The issue of parents featuring their children on social media is a double-edged sword. Preventing parents from sharing images or videos of their children is overly restrictive and may infringe upon personal first-amendment rights. On the other hand, in many cases, children are too young to fully consent to becoming public figures. In some cases, tensions over parents abusing a child star’s earning potential has resulted in civil family disputes, such as in the case of famed child star Macaulay Culkin. Children acting as the primary breadwinner for a family often has dangerous implications, and those vulnerabilities are amplified when a parent controls the lucrative platforms with no financial protections for the children featured.
Although the legal precedent for issues of child influencers and performers pertains mostly to entertainment law, the effects have the potential to impact other areas of civil law, such as contracts, labor disputes between family members, and even the extent to which social media platforms should assume responsibility for regulating content. One loophole that allows children to participate in and earn money from content creation is the fact that although most networks require users to be thirteen years of age or older to create an account, some parents circumvent this requirement by creating and managing the accounts featuring their children.
It’s no secret that the ever-changing role of technology in the lives of the American people creates a difficult game of catch-up for lawmakers. In family law, however, the range of scenarios in which technology can be applied either as a benefit or a potential harm is great. Although we cannot know future plans of lawmakers in respect to social media and familial relationships, it is clear that several daunting issues may soon exist for future politicians, judges, and lawyers.