Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Living in the public eye

No parent going through a divorce wants to experience what happened to Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin, actors whose recorded telephone rants were released by the media and replayed all over the internet. I think it is safe to assume that when Gibson went off on his wife and Baldwin on his daughter, they didn’t consider how their words would play in the media.    But one hopes they do now.

The lesson for all divorcing and divorced parents is that they might end up in the same situation if they don't use tact and self-control. It’s the phenomenon of Schadenfreude—taking pleasure in someone else’s pain.  And it’s a powerful phenomenon indeed. Social media rants make great theater, the audience eagerly passing them along to others.   If you doubt that, search youtube for video clips of everyday marital arguments and parent meltdowns. You’ll cringe when you see how many visits each clip has logged. 

It isn’t always rants either that cause divorcing parents problems. Too frequently, parents remain “signed onto” their social media accounts, creating opportunity for their tech savvy children to check up on their search history and posts.  On more than one occasion, I’ve had parents to tell me ruefully that one spouse’s affair was revealed first by the children—who discovered the evidence in the parent’s email or texts.   In other instances, children have found a parent’s vacation pictures with their new girlfriend or boyfriend posted on social media, despite earlier explanations that they were traveling on business.  Oops.

Twitter posts and text messages by observers, reporting events as they happen, can also add an immediacy that heightens others’ interest—and a parent’s embarrassment.  Alienated teens are notorious for texting moment-by-moment accounts of the “awful” time they are having with a rejected parent, recounting every perceived transgression. One teen texted her group of friends a serial account of her mother’s tryst with a boyfriend upstairs.  As she fired off the texts, friends passed her texts along to others.  Everyone was amused, except her mother, of course, and now the father will never let the mother forget it.   

So how much privacy can be expected?  As it turns out, not much.   

Anything said or done in public is fair game for publication and, potentially, use in court:  a cell phone record of one parent berating the other, a video of a parent’s argument with a teen, angry emails and texts, revealing posts.  In the worst cases, such as Gibson’s and Baldwin’s, the material does more than complicate a parent’s divorce, it goes viral, entertaining millions and undermining the person’s credibility and reputation.  Maybe Gibson’s ex and Baldwin’s daughter behaved badly—but who pays attention to that in light of these celebrity fathers’ behavior?

The best antidote?  Assume everything you say and write could become public. Use discretion. Don’t  email, text, or publish anything you (or your children) would regret later. (If you doubt that lawyers have caught on, read this).

Alec Baldwin reportedly said he regretted disclosure of his words so deeply that he contemplated suicide. His access to his daughter was briefly suspended, but he subsequently apologized publically:  “I’m sorry, as everyone who knows me is aware, for losing my temper with my child.” "Obviously, calling your child a pig or anything else is improper and inappropriate, and I apologize to my daughter for that," he said.