IT was first blamed for encouraging illicit encounters; now it is being cited as the superhighway to divorce.
Lawyers are seeing a steep rise in divorce petitions involving Facebook as they grapple with the post-Christmas increase in marriage breakdown.
Emma Patel, head of family law at UK firm Setfords, said: “There is a distinct trend in social networking websites being cited in divorces, almost as a virtual third party. Facebook features in 30 of the petitions I have seen since May, which is nearly all of them.”
She said that the huge popularity of sites such as Second Life, Illicit Encounters and Friends Reunited were tempting couples to cheat on one another. “Then suspicious spouses use the sites to spy, and find evidence of flirting and even affairs.”
Facebook pages were increasingly being cited in evidence as “unreasonable behaviour”, she added, including flirtatious messages or e-mails and chats of a suggestive or sexual nature.
The sites can also fan the acrimony of divorce proceedings, with public slanging matches online and even the posting of photographs of new lovers.
“Couples send abusive comments to each other, even though we advise them not to. In one case things got so bad that we had to involve the police and the person was charged with malicious communication.”
It is estimated that 14 million Britons regularly use social networking sites. The popularity of Friends Reunited a few years ago was blamed for a surge in divorce as people contacted old flames.
A growing number of people also use Second Life, a virtual world where people adopt avatars, or invented personas, to escape from real life, which can lead to infidelities.
Ms Patel added: “The situation has deteriorated so badly that we advise feuding couples to avoid these sites until their divorces are settled.”
Her firm is experiencing the usual rise in divorce inquiries after Christmas, with 20 to 25 in the past week compared with the normal one or two.
Vanessa Lloyd-Platt, who runs her own family law firm in London – which is experiencing a 20 per cent rise in divorce inquiries – said that Facebook had now become “the divorce lawyer’s jewel in the crown”.
She said: “I designated Monday this week D-Day, after a Christmas with inclement weather, which meant greater than normal unmet expectations over online gifts that did not arrive.” Being “constantly holed up with relatives” also caused people to become hugely frustrated, she said.
Alex Carruthers, a family partner with Hughes Fowler Carruthers, warned that people often saw social media sites as “very intimate spaces where they can pour out their hearts freely”. But, he added, they were very public. “Throwaway comments about a partner or personal or financial assertions that cannot be backed up may come back to haunt the person responsible. People should think twice before they post comments.”
Facebook already has a divorce page where people can post comments about what they are going through, and 5,700 people have said they “like” the page.
Meanwhile, the United States offers a hint of the trend. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers said that 81 per cent of its members had used social media sites to gather evidence in the past five years.
Lawyers may be pleased at their new-found source of evidence. But ministers hoping for less fighting and more mediation in divorce may be less than delighted at Facebook’s new role in family disputes.