For people in family court, staying in touch, especially via court-ordered visitation arrangements, can be a challenge. But some courts are implementing new high-tech approaches to address old family law issues. A New York judge recently ruled that as a condition of her out-of-state move away to Florida, a Long Island mother must make her two children available to talk to their father through Skype, an online video conferencing service.

Although this was the first time such a condition has been ordered in New York, a number of other states have begun experimenting with “virtual visitation.” Many judges now have the option to keep non-custodial parents in contact with their children through the use of email, instant messaging, and web cams-part of a greater trend toward the law’s increased reliance on technology, especially in divorce and family law. But the technological shift is not without its critics, who are quick to point out the potential danger in substituting web chats for weekends spent together.

Bridging the Gap between Parents and Children in Custody Cases

According to the Nielsen Company, a media research firm, more people now use social networks to communicate rather than web-based email. The desire to make human connections on the web is especially prevalent among younger internet users, who flock to sites like Facebook and Twitter. Thus, emerging internet technology may be one of the best ways for distant parents to stay connected to their children.

Michael Gough, the divorced father of a four-year-old, asked a Utah judge to require his ex-wife to allow him to use Skype to speak with his child (which led Utah to become the first state to adopt virtual visitation laws in 2004). Gough says that when he spoke to his daughter over the telephone before starting virtual visitation, their conversations lasted an average of five minutes; after he started using web-based video calls to connect with his daughter, conversations lasted for an average of fifteen minutes and occasionally went on for as long as forty-five minutes.

The computer screen is probably better than the telephone in most cases, but some worry that widely available video conferencing technology will make it more likely that courts will allow custodial parents to move greater distances. Replacing face-to-face interaction with the web is not the same for parent or child; courts should be wary of allowing a relocation that would be questionable without technology like Skype.

Technology in the Courts

The use of Skype and similar services in visitation is just one example of the ways in which technology is changing law. Technology has also changed the way attorneys work; some lawyers carry the iPad tablet in lieu of a briefcase, and there are now several niche blogs dedicated solely to advising legal professionals on how to get the most out of their iPads. And, beyond affecting day-to-day responsibilities, technology has raised a number of issues in the courts.

One prevalent example is the use of evidence from social media like Facebook in family law cases. Like virtual visitation, the use of social media has both benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, the availability of useable evidence is a concern, and extrapolating evidence from social media sites provides additional information that could help courts get to the truth. However, photos and other electronic media contain embedded information; in some cases, the GPS coordinates of where a photo was taken or a camera’s serial number. And much of what gets posted online, from pictures to posts, becomes a permanent record (for example, Facebook retains information even after accounts are closed). Use of evidence raises concerns about privacy, as well as taking such evidence out-of-context in court.

As many commentators note, technological change in general will correspond to change in divorce and family law cases. Technology can be used to better meet the needs of families, but we must be mindful of its impact. At this point in time, technology like Skype does not replace actually being present with your son or daughter.