Internet addiction, pornography and divorce
As a divorce attorney, I am increasingly seeing cases where internet addiction, particularly addiction to online pornography, plays a role in the divorce, is a factor in custody decisions, and may even be an issue in the division marital property. In one case, a parent’s excessive use of the internet and resulting neglect of their child played an important role in the eventual custody decision.
Online pornography has been called the “quiet family killer.” Adultery is now only a click of the mouse away. In 2004, Dr. Manning testified to the U.S. Congress that 56% of divorces involved obsessive internet porn addiction by one spouse. In a survey of members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 60% of the lawyers thought that internet pornography was linked to higher rates of divorce. The American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged that Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a legitimate health concern. IAD is also being considered for admission as mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-V.
Like other addictions, internet addiction can poison an addict’s social, work and familial relationships. I’ve heard spouses refer to themselves as “cyber-widows.” Excessive time online often results in the neglect of family, friends, social activities and interests. Children especially can be the victims of a parent’s online addiction. Young children are harmed if they are exposed inadvertently to internet pornography. Experts consider that the average age is first exposed to internet pornography at the age of nine. Children may feel a sense of abandonment and neglect from a parents excessive internet use, and, at worst, may even suffer abuse if the parent gets angry when they are interrupted. Extreme cases have been reported where internet addiction has even led to death of children. For example, a Florida mother killed her 3 month year old baby for repeatedly crying and interrupting her “Farmville” game playing. A Korean couple was tried for murder when they left their baby to starve while they raised a virtual baby online.
The first thing your divorce attorney should do if they suspect that a parent is an internet addict is to find out whether the children have been exposed to any harmful or sexually explicit material and how much time that parent spends on the internet. Has the parent taken any security precautions to prevent exposure to sexually explicit material on the internet? It may be possible to subpoena internet sites to determine how much time a parent spends on a particular site. A parent who plays World of Warcraft all day long is hardly in a position to argue that they are providing proper supervision and care for their children. It might even be possible to obtain an order to search the parent’s computer. Court appointed custody evaluators often ask to look at parents’ computers during home visits. In a reported Connecticut case, the court ordered that a couple exchange their Facebook and other dating website passwords as part of the discovery process.
But before you go riffling through your spouse’s computer a word of caution. Most states have strict privacy laws. Anyone going through a divorce is well advised to rely on their attorney to discover incriminating evidence and they should not take matters into their own hands. In one California case, the Court of Appeal found that an ex-husband’s snooping around in his ex-wife’s email account during a bitter custody dispute could be “abuse” and grounds for a domestic violence restraining order. In a Cincinnati case, the husband was forced to issue an apology to his wife on his Facebook page or face jail time.
Another aspect to internet addiction that might come as a surprise to those going through a divorce is how it can affect property division. It was news to me that online creations such as avatars, weapons and imaginary worlds can be valuable marital assets. A virtual space station on Planet Calypso reportedly sold for $330,000. The owners of the computer game “Second Life” valued user to user transactions at $567 million in 2009 and one Chinese woman, Ailin Graef, reportedly acquired virtual real estate holdings worth $1 million. On the other hand if your spouse is not the virtual tycoon and has frittered away thousands of dollars in online gaming you might be able to claim reimbursement on the grounds that they deliberately misappropriated marital funds.