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Post-Separation Parenting Smartphone Apps: A primer for family law professionals*

Issues - Winter Edition 2023

Post-Separation Parenting Smartphone Apps

Post-Separation Parenting Smartphone Apps are being mandated by some judges as the primary mode of communication in high-conflict cases. Family lawyers, mediators and mental health professionals are also increasingly being asked by clients about post-separation apps.

There are now dozens of apps designed specifically for separated parent to help them manage their communication and parenting arrangements. These apps vary in cost and features, and typically incorporate a messaging tool, shared calendar, expense tracker and the ability to export records for legal purposes. Potential benefits include keeping all information in one place, flagging inappropriate messages, setting clear boundaries for communication and the ability to collect evidence (i.e., convenience, containment, and accountability) (Heard et al., 2023).

Some judges are starting to mandate the use of post-separation parenting apps as the primary mode of communication in high-conflict cases. Family lawyers, mediators and mental health professionals are also increasingly being asked by clients about post-separation apps.

In situations where parents face ongoing high conflict, these apps are likely to appear highly attractive due to their ability to provide asynchronous text-based communication, which offers less emotionally charged interactions by eliminating body language and tonal cues. They can limit

communication between parents, prevent the escalation of conflict, and maintain comprehensive records of communication and activities for legal purposes. Some apps offer the benefit of granting third parties, like courts, parenting coordinators, and lawyers, direct access to certain information if necessary. However, our concern is that some app features have the potential to inadvertently fuel conflict and/or foster litigiousness – or worse, can become technologies of coercive control and abuse (see e.g., Irving & Smyth, 2023).

We (Payne et al, 2022) recently conducted an anonymous online survey distributed to mediators, lawyers, psychologists and judicial officers through a range of family law email distribution lists and online practitioner networks in Australia and New Zealand (N=344). The majority of respondents identified as female (79%), from Australia (88%) and worked in cities (70%).

We found: (a) family law professionals had limited knowledge of co-parenting apps, and this was consistent across different professions; (b) about two thirds of practitioners who suggested co-parenting apps to their clients had not personally tried the apps themselves; (c) around one third of practitioners mentioned their clients had either experienced or expressed concerns about coercive control through an app; and yet (d) three quarters of the professionals reported they recommended apps to their clients. This pattern of results surprised us and might, in part, reflect the lure of ‘techno-solutionism’ (i.e., the belief that complex human problems can be solved with technology).

In our second study (Smyth et al, 2023), we sought to answer three research questions: How easily can users carry out common post-separation parenting tasks using popular post-separation parenting apps available in Australia? Which apps and app features are the easiest to use? How likely are experienced family mediators to recommend any of these apps to a family experiencing or with a history of domestic violence?

In total, 30 Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners (FDRPs) (23 women, 7 men) from Relationships Australia worked in pairs to evaluate the 10 apps. They role played common post-separation parenting scenarios as high conflict ex-couples and rated popular apps on several key dimensions. The 10 apps were:

  • 2Houses
  • 2forkids
  • Amicable
  • AppClose
  • Divitto
  • Fayr
  • Our Family Wizard
  • Peaceful Parent
  • Talking Parents
  • WeParent

Five key findings emerged. First, many FDRPs exhibited a shift in their apparent enthusiasm for post-separation parenting apps once they used the apps themselves. Second, all the apps received an average rating between ‘Poor’ to ‘Fair’. Third, some of the well-known apps received lower ratings for their features compared to some of the lesser-known apps. Fourth, FDRPs generally rated the messaging function in almost all apps quite positively. However, the shared calendar function proved to be the most challenging for them to use. Fifth, FDRPs were reluctant to recommend any of these apps for use where family violence or coercive control were present.

Implications for Family law professionals

There is no ‘best’ app. All apps have risks and benefits. Context is critical. The first question practitioners should ask clients who are considering using an app is: “Why do you want to use an app?” “Which function(s) is/are most important to you: messaging; a shared calendar; keeping track of expenses; sharing information; and/or accountability – i.e., being able to export certain messages or events to a lawyer or court?” Once clarity of purpose is established, practitioners should remind potential users that apps come and go frequently, and parents should choose an app that has been around for a while and is likely to be maintained for some time. Losing access to sensitive and personal information can be incredibly frustrating. We are developing a free web tool that will describe some of the benefits and risks of different app features for families in different situations. This tool will be available later this year:

https://csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/research/projects/post-separation-parenting-apps

For more detailed information, see:

Heard, G., Irving, M., Smyth, B.M., Payne, J.L. & Althor, G. (2023). Risks and benefits of post-separation parenting apps: perceptions of family law professionals in Australia and New Zealand Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 45(2),143-164.

Irving, M. & Smyth, B.M. (2023) Post-Separation Parenting Apps: Potential benefits and risks in the context of family violence. Australian Journal of Family Law, 36, 90-104.

Payne, J.L., Smyth, B.M, Irving, M., Heard, G. & Althor, G. (2022). Family law professionals’ views of post-separation parenting apps. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 36(1). Online Preview

Smyth, B.M, Payne, J.L, Irving, M., & Heard, G. (2023). Popular post-separation parenting smartphone apps: An evaluation. Family Court Review, 61(3), 563–585.

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* This brief article draws on a series of articles published by the authors: Payne et al (2022); Smyth et al (2023); Heard et al (2023); Irving & Smyth (2023); Irving et al (2023). This research was conducted with financial support from the Australian Research Council (LP200100413), with additional support from the ANU Centre for Social Research & Methods, Relationships Australia Canberra & Regions, and Relationships Australia Victoria.

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