‘You Can’t Hug a Computer’

What if you could be with your child even when you were away from your child? Technology is making this idea a reality. More and more parents who have to be away for extended periods of time are using Internet hookups, webcams, and microphones to spend face-to-face time, so-called, with their kids. Something like this could be a godsend for, perhaps, military parents or parents in prison. But like so much technology, this innovation has its darker side. In many divorce cases, it's being used as a substitute for personal parental time with a child. The nicknames given to this trend say it all-nicknames like "virtual visitation" or "virtual parent-time." And the courts are getting on board. And so a court allowed Paul Cleri's ex-wife to move out-of-state with their three children as long as Cleri could visit them -- virtually, that is, twice a week. Cleri is appealing the decision. His ex-wife's lawyer called virtual visitation "one step away from being there." But Cleri told the Washington Post, "I don't view virtual visitation as a practical alternative to physical contact. You can't hug a computer." However, many other so-called "virtual parents" think virtual visitation is a lifesaver. Some have promoted legislation in their states to let divorced parents supplement their visitation time just this way. A host of websites like and books like Moms over Miles help parents set up "distance parenting plans" and suggest activities parents and kids can do by webcam. Yet even many virtual visitation advocates recognize its limitations. A site called emphasizes, "Virtual Visitation should NEVER be used to replace or substitute in-person or face-to-face visits with your children." The trouble is, that's exactly what it's being used for. David Levy of the Children's Rights Council told the Post, "Some parents are encouraged to allow a move-away on the promise that there will be e-mail and phone contact, and now webcam access." Even Jim Buie, author of several books and articles about the advantages of virtual visitation, is ambivalent about his own experience with his son, whose mother took him to live five hundred miles away. On his website, Buie wrote, "When I look at Matthew's life as a whole, I see some unmet needs. For me to try and fill them via e-mail, online chats, telephone conversations, monthly visits, on holidays and during the summer is unrealistic." Correct. That's why, despite the good intentions of a lot of these parents, I think it's dangerous for virtual visitation rights to be used in custody cases. Divorce is traumatic enough for kids. Anything that encourages courts to let one parent move away from the kids, or take them away from their other parent, does more harm than good. It's just a new attempt to prove old myths that have already been discredited -- that is, that "quality time" is more important than "quantity time," that only one parent is really necessary, and so on. Instead of buying into such fairy tales, the courts -- and the families involved -- need to make every effort to ensure that kids grow up near Mom and Dad. A virtual parent, no matter how loving, is no substitute for the real thing. For further reading and information: Jim Buie, "Visitation Rights Are Becoming High-Tech," Washington Post, 15 June 2004. Pamela Ferdinand, "'Virtual' Visits May Be Custody Solution," Washington Post, 13 July 2002. Jim Buie, "A Virtual Dad's Journal," Glenn Sacks and Dianna Thompson, "No Virtue in Virtual Visitation," Boston Globe, 12 July 2002. (Reprinted at Maryland's People's Law Library lists some more cases where the availability of virtual visitation helped persuade judges to let one parent move out of state, or even out of the country. (The site takes a pro-virtual visitation stance.) Leslie Eaton, "Families Evolve, But Custody Wars Are Ugly as Ever," New York Times, 12 June 2004. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) Joanna Grossman, "The Virtues of Virtual Parenting: Can the Internet Replace Visitation When a Custodial Parent Relocates?FindLaw, 28 December 2001. Leslie Carbone, "The Divorce Caste," BreakPoint Online, 27 September 2002. Marcia Segelstein, "Intentional Marriage," BreakPoint Online, 16 June 2003. Linda Waite, et al., Does Divorce Make People Happy?, Institute for American Values, 2002. Quentin Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart (Baker Book House, 2002). To order, call 1-877-322-5527. Read an interview with Dr. Schultze. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030304, "More Than Duct Tape: Cyberculture's Values." BreakPoint Commentary No. 030305, "A Better Kind of Space: Real Community and Virtue." See BreakPoint's sanctity of marriage resource page. Call 1-877-322-5527 to request the free BreakPoint marriage amendment information packet and the free "Talking Points on Marriage and Same-Sex Unions." Also available is the Speak the Truth in Love kit (suggested donation: $25).


Chuck Colson


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