Whether Facebook increases the number of divorces

You might have seen certain figures bandied about how often Facebook is cited in divorce cases: this story says, “Two-thirds of the lawyers surveyed said that Facebook was the “primary source” of evidence in divorce proceedings.” But is it fair to then say that Facebook is a primary driver of divorce proceedings? Carl Bialik says the numbers are more complicated than many news stories would lead you to believe:

Some lawyers do say that they see Facebook playing a bigger role in divorce these days, that doesn’t mean the site destroys marriages…

“Correlation is not causation,” Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an email. “Divorce has been around for a long time, long before these sorts of possibilities were present; the newly available information does add a new flavor to relationship maintenance and dissolution, but I don’t think it changes the basic processes that underlie change and deterioration in relationships.”…

These issues are symptoms of a larger issue in divorce research: “It’s very hard to separate out the causes” of divorce, says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist and divorce researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

“To do this kind of research requires a huge amount of persistence,” said George Levinger, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Massachusetts.

Part of the reason is that it is hard to pinpoint a single reason or even a set of reasons for any marital split…

Some researchers have asked divorcees why they divorced, and gotten conflicting results from men and women. Others have looked for factors that predict whether couples divorce. “There are many social, cultural, and behavioral predictors of divorce,” W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email.

Other academics examine couples’ behavior, seeking clues that might predict marital dissolution.

It sounds like this a more complicated methodological issue that still needs to be worked out by researchers: how exactly can one identify the primary cause or causes of divorce? Just because Facebook is mentioned as contributing to a divorce does not mean that it causes the divorce. As you might expect, Facebook itself says this argument is silly:

A spokesperson for Facebook said: “It’s ridiculous to suggest that Facebook leads to divorce. Whether you’re breaking up or just getting together, Facebook is just a way to communicate, like letters, phone calls and emails. Facebook doesn’t cause divorces, people do.”

It is no surprise that lawyers would want to use Facebook data for a divorce case (or other types of cases such as fraud – one example here). Facebook is often fairly public information and people often post on there without thinking about the potential consequences of sharing such information. It would be interesting to hear more about how this data from Facebook is presented in court and the reactions to it from both judges and the participants in the case.

But I wonder if these sorts of figures and ideas about Facebook and divorce have gained notoriety because they may fit some larger narratives about privacy and information sharing on Facebook as well as voyeurism on the Internet. These figures from lawyers could be presented as evidence that people lead dual lives, one in the offline world and another one in the real world. Whether this is actually the case doesn’t matter as much; what does is that the hot company of recent years, Facebook, can be linked to negative behavior.

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