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“My Ex Keeps Tabs On Me Through My Kids’ Phones”

Even under the best of circumstances, co-parenting can be a challenge. You might face all kinds of headache-inducing situations, like one divorced father of teens recently explained in a Washington Post advice column. He shared that his ex-wife tracks their teens, in turn, tracking him when they’re together. This mom apparently sends “annoying texts” about his whereabouts via the tracking apps, questioning his parenting skills and seemingly not trusting his ability to keep their kids safe and protected in his custody and care.

What should you do if you find yourself faced with this type of digital invasion of privacy by your own ex? Two lawyers gave us the scoop on this sticky situation.

First, it’s worth noting that cyber-stalking or threats of any kind are a completely different scenario, so if you or your children’s safety is at risk, you should seek legal and emotional support from safe and trusted advisors. But if it’s merely a matter of snarky comments or judgmental chit-chat, here’s how to handle this irritating co-parenting debacle.

It’s Complicated

“It can be an invasion of a parent’s privacy if the other parent uses the child’s phone to track the parent, not necessarily to track the child or the child’s phone,” says New Jersey-based family law attorney Rajeh A. Saadeh. “The parent is allowed to track the location of the child’s phone, as well as the child. That is not the same as tracking a fellow parent.”

Unfortunately, this type of tracking can be both tough to prove and to litigate should it come down to that, as Texas-based family law attorney Jennifer Hargrave adds. “State laws vary widely on what constitutes an invasion of privacy, and there are instances when the invasion can even be criminal. However, these actions are very difficult to prove.”

Why is it such a complicated legal issue, you might ask? “The main problem for proving these types of claims is the ‘expectation of privacy,’” says Hargrave. “If you allow your children to use electronic devices when they are in your possession, you should know that there is information that can be shared across various platforms, such as location sharing through apps like Snapchat, Life 360, Find My Friends, etc. Even if you attempt to turn off the location settings, your child may still be able to override your settings on their devices in many instances.”

The Trouble With Tracking

The TL;DR here: If your kid is using any kind of device, there’s a good chance their whereabouts are traceable, which probably means yours are, too.

“If a parent believes the other parent is using a device to ‘keep tabs’ on that parent’s behavior — then the first thing is to make a request in writing to the other parent to stop that behavior,” suggests Hargrave. “I would alert the other parent to the fact that you are aware that these devices can be used to track the other parent and that, out of respect, you will not be tracking your child when they are with the other parent. Ask for them to do the same. Also, you can let the other parent know that you will be turning off the location settings on the devices when the children are with you. If the other parent has any concerns, they are welcome to contact you.”

Exploring Your Rights

Both experts note that you could provide your child devices to use when they’re in your care (in lieu of using their own), but that’s not the simplest (or most budget-friendly) solution. “If all fails, a judge may have to resolve this issue for the parents,” says Saadeh.

“If an ex is commenting about your parenting skills or location, you should immediately explore your domestic violence rights,” he adds. “Assuming there is no domestic violence — which does not have to be physical — then the next step should be filtering through any inappropriate commentary and just addressing anything, if at all, that involves co-parenting issues.”

Sometimes, calling out the unwanted behavior is sufficient, says Hargrave. In many cases, though, it’s not — and you’ll likely want to take further action. “You may be able to request that the court issue an order prohibiting the other parent from using the children’s devices to monitor behavior. More and more states are beginning to address the use of electronic devices in their family law and criminal law codes. Of course, if you feel like your safety is at risk, you should definitely talk with a lawyer.”

In fact, says Saadeh, “There are laws that provide emergency protection for domestic violence, and you should utilize those processes to the extent they apply.”

A Grown-Up Conversation

You should also leave your kids out of it, as both pros note. “It’s OK to talk about your rules when your children are with you — and those rules will vary,” says Hargrave. “But it’s not OK to let your kids know that the other parent is monitoring their every move, and that’s the reason they have to leave their devices at home. It’s not unusual for parents to think that their children ‘need to know’ about conflict between their parents, but 99.999% of the time, children do not need to know, and involving them only places more burdens on them. Kids do not want to be put in the middle of parental conflict.”

Ultimately, Saadeh sends a reminder that “your ex is your ex for a reason. What they say does not have to matter, and ignoring such a person, except to the extent necessary for co-parenting purposes, takes away the power and control they think they have over you.”

But keeping your cool and ignoring the commentary might not always be enough, and that’s where a lawyer can help you navigate these murky parenting waters.

“If the other parent becomes intrusive with your parenting time, or you feel unsafe, then you should consult with a lawyer about your legal rights and see what remedies might be available,” says Hargrave.