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Sharenting in Family Law Matters

Social media is now an integral part of life in Australia. When it comes to family law matters, it is essential to proceed with caution as social media can be used as evidence in parenting and property disputes. In addition, the posting of children to social media – so-called “sharenting” – can become a matter of contention between separated parents, who may have different ideas of what is appropriate to share with the rest of the world. This article considers several implications of the use of social media in family law matters.

What is Sharenting?

Many parents regularly post news, images, and videos of their children online so that friends and family (and sometimes their entire online community), can track the child’s progress and enjoy their milestones. So prevalent is this practice that the word “sharenting” (a portmanteau of “sharing” and “parenting”) was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2022.

Parents engage in sharenting for a number of valid reasons. They want to share their children’s daily lives, seek support from other parents, and catalogue memories. In fact, new parents might find themselves struggling to reconcile the implications for their child’s privacy with the pressure to document their child’s life online. Third parties such as family, schools, and the community often encourage sharing of information and images of children, and parents can find it difficult to draw a line between appropriate and inappropriate sharing. In addition, for some parents, sharenting is also a way to earn income. “Mummy influencers” can earn substantial fees from brand partnerships by sharing their family online.

Risks of Sharenting

Critics have expressed growing concerns over the safety aspects of sharing images of children online, as well as the psychological impact on the children. Of course, the greatest danger is that there will be a physical threat to their child. Experts warn against sharing information about children online as it can increase the risk that the children will become targets in real life. While sharenting parents often try to anonymise their children online, predators can use a range of sophisticated techniques to put information together to be able to locate children, and then exploit their knowledge of the family’s routine to gain access to the child. Critics of sharenting also express concerns that these children may suffer from anxiety or embarrassment that this information is permanently recorded in the online world. Experts advise parents to keep social media accounts with information about a child on a private setting to limit who can see the posts. There are other ways to secure a social media account, such as turning off geotagging on the camera so that location data does not attach to photos.

However, so long as the content is legally permitted (that is, not exploitative), the law allows parents to decide how much of their children’s lives to share on the internet. Obviously, this situation becomes considerably more complicated when the parents have different views of what is appropriate.

Injunctions to Stop Sharenting

A parent can apply to the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (or the Family Court of Western Australia) to obtain an injunction to restrain a former partner from sharenting about their children. When parents have shared parenting responsibility, then the court may well agree that sharenting requires the consent of both parents. The court can order that neither parent post images of their child to social media without the consent of the other. However, this would be a more difficult case to make if, before the separation, both parents were supportive of the sharenting. In that case, the parent making the application would need to prove that there had been a significant change of circumstances, such as a negative impact on the child.

In cases where this behaviour rises to a level that is genuinely exploitative or worrying, it is important to seek immediate police assistance and legal advice to ensure the safety of the child.

Family Law Proceedings

There are legal implications to sharing images of a child online, particularly for parents who share responsibility for a minor child. The Family Law Act 1975 prohibits parties from publishing information that can identify a party to a family law proceeding. Under certain circumstances it is possible for sharenting to constitute a breach of this prohibition, attracting hefty fines and even imprisonment.

Sharenting can also leave a parent open to criticism from the other parent during a family law matter. For example, posting an otherwise innocuous or cute photo of a child eating junk food can lead one parent to accuse the other of failing to provide their child with a balanced diet. While many parents humorously vent about their misfortunes online, this can be used against them in a family law matter. In George & Nichols [2016], the father posted thinly veiled criticisms of his former partner, including mocking cartoons. The court ultimately gave the mother sole parental responsibility, partly because the social media posts proved that the father could not contain his poor opinion of the mother, and the child could suffer psychological harm as a result.

It is important to know that even if a post or image is deleted, it is almost impossible to permanently remove it from the internet, and doing so can also be seen as tampering with evidence in a family law matter. It is best to discuss the matter with a lawyer before taking any action. Family law parenting matters are almost invariably complicated, and these matters become more complicated when online behaviour impacts on proceedings. Contact the family law team at Armstrong Legal to guide you through the process. Please call 1300 038 223 for legal assistance on this or any other legal topic.

Dr Nicola Bowes

This article was written by Dr Nicola Bowes

Dr Nicola Bowes holds a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours from the University of Tasmania, a Bachelor of Laws with first class honours from the Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD from The University of Queensland. After a decade working in higher education, Nicola joined Armstrong Legal in 2020.

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