ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Stacy Thibodeaux was furious when she discovered pictures of her children on her ex-husband's online dating profile soon after they divorced.
"I went through the roof," Thibodeaux, 45, remembers. She confronted her ex, saying it wasn't appropriate to have their young children's images on Match.com.
She says he simply blocked her from viewing his profile.
Thibodeaux, who has now been divorced for nearly five years and has recently remarried, said she realized she could not control what her ex-husband did with their children's pictures. But, had it occurred to her during the divorce, it may have been helpful to have established some ground rules about their children's digital exposure as part of the custody agreement, she said.
That idea of managing a child's online footprint is becoming part of the conversations during a divorce and even after custody settlements as social networks become nearly ubiquitous ways of sharing information about one's life and family.
"Social media has become a very big issue in all aspects of divorce," said Alton Abramowitz, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His firm counsels clients to shut down their social media profiles as soon as they begin considering a divorce. Parents who post questionable pictures that may potentially embarrass a child later might find those same pictures and status updates used against them in court. It speaks to poor parental judgment, he said.
"Even married people can post things about their kids that the other person may not be happy about," Thibodeaux said. "It's harder when you're divorced because you're already at odds with one another."
St. Louis-area attorney Josh Knight faced a scenario with a client whose ex-wife wanted to prohibit him from sharing any information about their children on social networks. Knight said that barring special circumstances, he would argue against such a blanket rule.
"In our highly mobile world, it is sometimes the best way to share photographs and information about children with family members and friends who do not live in the area. That being said, a party should be careful to take all possible precautions in order to avoid messages and images from falling into the hands of someone who was not designated to receive them," he explained in an email.
There's certainly room for compromise, says Stephanie Williams, clinical director with Kids in the Middle, a nonprofit education and support group in St. Louis for families going through a divorce.
She suggested parents consider parameters, such as different privacy settings to control who could see certain types of information, and work toward an agreement on the type of content that can be shared and what is off-limits.
"It's really about understanding what the concerns are behind it," she said.
That's the approach that Meredith Friedman, of Creve Coeur, took when she and husband separated five years ago. Her children were 7 and 8 years old at the time, and their father had strong concerns about their online privacy.
"We decided together not to put our kids on Facebook," she said. He convinced her that it was more of a security issue. Now that their children are older, they do include some family pictures on their pages.
But, in many cases, Facebook ends up causing more grief for divorced co-parents than good, Williams said. She has seen instances in which one parent might trash the other on Facebook, which will eventually make its way back to the former spouse, or even worse, their child.
"If you shouldn't say it in front of your child, why would you put it on Facebook?" she asked. That should be avoided at all costs, she advised.
"Social media is just one more thing that angry ex-spouses can fight about," said Larry Ganong, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia. His research found that technology can be useful when couples fail to get along because text messages and emails may be edited before sending. It's a way to share facts and manage schedules without getting into accusations and name-calling, he said. But the danger lies in trying to strike a balance between cooperative tech and hostile behavior.
"One of the things that can be hard for divorcing parents to grasp is that you no longer have any control over the other parent," he explained.
Unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect, each parent is free to parent as he or she wishes. Parents may continue to fight after a divorce if they are reluctant to relinquish the effort to control the other person's parenting behavior, Ganong said. He suggests including the use of social media in a parenting plan, a legal document required by Missouri for divorcing parents. Illinois does not require a parenting plan.
A snapshot of a Facebook conversation demonstrates just how wrong such communication can become. It was posted last year on happyplace.com, a site that curates funny online videos, posts and pics. The screen shot redacts the full name of the parents involved: A mother posting on a profile she has created for her unborn baby and man, presumably the child's father.
The mom-posting-as-fetus announces in a status update that she plans to party with her friends next Halloween when she is born. The presumed father-to-be comments on this update, addressing the fetus, identified as a girl: "April, no offense, but your mom is a (expletive) nut. There's a reason we're not friends on Facebook anymore and don't talk anymore. I am excited to have you in my life, and I think you will be the best daughter ever if you are mine, but this is (expletive) ridiculous."
He asks the mother to take the page down asserting his hypothetical parental rights, arguing that he should have a say in whether the yet-to-be-born April gets a party profile on Facebook.
The mother, in turn, responds in the voice of the unborn baby: "If you would step up and own up to getting my mom pregnant and take full responsibility then we wouldn't be in this situation!" The mother/fetus writes that she needs a Facebook page, so that she's "born into the world with good friends."
"I refuse to argue with my unborn child via Facebook," the possible father responds. "I am contacting child services."
While this exchange may or may not be real, it's not outside the realm of possibility in the digital age of co-parenting.
"Facebook is such a weird thing," Ganong said. "It's a permanent record of what (parents have) communicated, and it could come back to haunt them."