Whether users are posting vacation videos or discussing dinner plans, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter allow people to connect and share a great deal of personal information. Most of the time, this sharing comes with few negative consequences. An exception arises, though, when someone is preparing for divorce. These Web sites have collectively become a rich source of information for divorce lawyers preparing for contentious litigation.
If you are preparing for divorce, you should take several steps to ensure that your social networking profiles will not be used to your detriment.
Privacy and Social Networking Sites
To protect yourself on social networking sites, you must begin by recognizing that the integrity of your account on any Web site may be compromised. Once something is available online, it is no longer private. Your seemingly private profile may be accessed by any number of people, in many different ways.
Your soon-to-be ex-spouse may know your standard passwords or may be able to answer your security questions. Although few would debate that such invasions of privacy are unacceptable, people sometimes make bad decisions in the midst of divorce. It is best to be prepared for all contingencies, including the possibility that your future ex-spouse will look places he or she should not. Make sure that you are using strong passwords that are difficult to guess, with challenging security questions.
Furthermore, although many social networking sites provide privacy controls, this privacy can be little more than illusory. For example, if everyone in your network is allowed to see your profile, and your network includes a company or a city or a school, your profile may be available to thousands of people you do not know. If you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse are both members of the "Atlanta" network, you may be able to see each other's profiles despite the fact that you have eliminated your direct online connections. When preparing for divorce, check your privacy settings; make sure that you have narrowed the scope of your networks to those people you really want to have access to your profile.
Even if your passwords are secure and your privacy settings are restricted, any person that you provide access to your profile may leak information to your future ex-spouse. Most married couples have friends in common, and these friendships are likely to extend into online social networking services. These mutual friends may share information without understanding the consequences of such disclosures.
Particular Actions to Avoid
Given the lack of legitimate privacy protections, it is important to remember that anything you put on a social networking site may ultimately come back to haunt you as part of divorce proceedings. Beyond this general warning, though, there are a few specific actions to avoid when you are involved in a contentious divorce.
First, avoid demonstrating reckless behavior on social networking sites — especially if your divorce involves a child custody dispute. Divorce can be an emotionally draining and stressful experience, and people often deal with this stress in many different ways. However, many of these coping techniques are best left outside the courtroom, and therefore best left off of social networking sites.
Also, limit references to extravagant spending. Mentions of your most recent vacations or newest purchases may provide the court with an unrealistic picture of your finances; this can be important when establishing alimony payments or child support levels.
Finally, don't accept "friendship" requests from other users unless you know and trust them. Fictional profiles are easy to generate and may be used to obtain information that isn't intended to be public.
Clearly, social networking sites can raise a wide range of problems for people working through divorce. For some people, the best solution is to simply avoid these sites entirely. You can deactivate your accounts and return once the terms of your divorce have been finalized.
However, for other people this is not a wise option. Social networking sites can help to maintain connections with support systems, which can be critical when working through divorce. In these cases, the goal should be to minimize the potential risks of social networking sites.
Ultimately the key is to avoid displaying private issues in public spaces, and to remember that the Internet is a public space. Assume that your future ex-spouse and his or her lawyer will see anything you post, and restrict your posts accordingly.