Social media is a time suck in the best of scenarios. But Facebook, Twitter, and others of their ilk present special challenges after a divorce that, if not successfully avoided or navigated, can cause lasting emotional damage.
Wallowing in the self-professed happiness of friends and acquaintances by spending hours looking at their social media photos and status updates is unhealthy enough. Spending too much time online cyberstalking your ex can actually thwart the progress of your divorce. Social media may be helpful when it comes to discovery for a divorce. But it’s not your job to do the discovery.
Identifying cyberstalking behavior
Not sure if you’re guilty of cyberstalking? If you repeatedly, knowingly, and willfully look at your ex’s social media accounts—from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram and the like—whether you interact with your ex or not, you’re cyberstalking. Your conduct may very likely alarm, annoy, or torment the person on the receiving end, especially if your behavior serves no legitimate purpose. While you may feel that keeping tabs on your future ex—monitoring who they’re communicating with and where their money is going—will give you an upper hand in the divorce, attempting to gather this information through your own resources can be detrimental.
“Cyberstalking can start with a spouse feeling emotionally hurt by the divorce or wanting to get a leg up in divorce proceedings following the soon-to-be former spouse on social media. They may want to see if their ex is dating someone new or trying to get information that will aid them in property division or child custody negotiations,” says Jonathan Breeden, a divorce and family law attorney in North Carolina.
But there is far too much room for interpretation when it comes to online behavior, especially within social media. You may feel justified in publicly calling out your ex who was unwise enough to post photos of himself and his mistress on an expensive vacation when you’re in the middle of a contentious mediation. Unfortunately, far too many couples have elected to have ugly public arguments about finances or child custody via their Facebook walls and have suffered mightily as a result.
“Anything you put on social media can be used against you in a family law action,” says Anne P. Mitchell, a national Internet policy attorney. “If you respond just once to something your ex has said online, or if you share something from your ex’s social media account with someone else, that can be discovered and used against you. You may not even think that what you are saying is bad, but you will not get to determine that—your ex, their lawyer, and the court will determine whether or not it’s bad.”
From cyberstalking to criminal activity
Even the best of us can succumb to the temptation of social media and all the details it offers, especially if you’ve been blindsided by your divorce or feel starved for information. “When cyberstalking can become extremely problematic—and even criminal—is when the cyberstalking escalates and one spouse hacks a social media or email account,” says Breeden. “The spouse may be breaking state or federal laws by accessing someone’s account without permission. This may lead to physical stalking, harassment, threats, or even domestic violence charges.”
Following all of this mess could be the need for a restraining order and, potentially, criminal charges if the order is violated. “Cyberstalking or physical stalking may be seen as marital misconduct in the divorce proceedings and result in penalties,” says Breeden.
And it’s not just simple web surfing that’s problematic. Some people take cyberstalking to a whole new level, using a variety of technological devices to do their stalking, like a keylogger, the location finder on an iPad or iPhone, a GPS device placed in an automobile, or video security systems.
“If you notice that someone is showing up at your favorite restaurant or yoga class at the same time you are there, on multiple occasions, you may be the victim of cyberstalking. You may want to go off the grid for a while,” says Peter M. Walzer, family law attorney with Walzer Melcher in Los Angeles. “Get off social media and stop making it easy for people to track you. Turn off the location services on your phone. Change your passwords. Get a temporary cell phone, rent a car. Do whatever you can to change your schedule. There are so many ways to be stalked—protect yourself.”
And if you’re the one doing the stalking? Get thee some help for this destructive behavior, stat, whether from a counselor, member of the clergy, or neutral third party. “If you are cyberstalking your ex, that usually means you are still angry or emotionally fragile, which means you almost certainly will be triggered by things that they say,” says Mitchell.
The feelings you experience could cause you to react from a place of anger or hurt, but it’s essential to think of the long-term legal consequences. You may think you have evidence that will work in your favor, but all you’ll really do by presenting social media spying efforts is out yourself as a cyberstalker.