C4 Post-separation parenting smartphone apps: Risks and benefits


Professor Bruce Smyth
Australian National University

Professor Jason Payne
University of Wollongong

Dr Genevieve Heard
Relationships Australia Victoria

Dr Glenn Althor
Relationships Australia Canberra and Region

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Time: 11:45am – 1:15pm

Room: Room 8

C4 Relationship breakdown and re-partnering

Post-separation parenting smartphone apps: Risks and benefits



The rapidly evolving digital landscape is presenting new challenges to family law practitioners (i.e., the judiciary, legal and dispute resolution practitioners, and those in allied professions). Family law practitioners are increasingly being asked about, or to recommend, the use of post-separation parenting apps. These apps are also increasingly being mandated by family courts in Australia as elsewhere. There appears to be an underlying assumption that post-separation parenting apps make possible or improve the interaction between parents. But that assumption has not been tested empirically. While apps afford several potential benefits, some app features may do more harm than good by causing frustration, conflict or even facilitating abuse. This session seeks to highlight the potential benefits and risks of post-separation parenting apps.

Specifically, the study comprised three discrete but inter-related data collections: (1) an online survey of family law professionals’ knowledge of, willingness to use, and experience with co-parenting apps; (2) a critical evaluation of 10 popular co-parenting apps and their features; and (3) an online survey of separated parents who use these apps. In Study 1 we found that (a) practitioners generally reported little knowledge of post-separation parenting apps; (b) around one third reported that their clients had reported the experience of coercive control through an app; (c) around one third of practitioners who had recommended an app had tried it beforehand; and yet (d) three quarters reported recommending apps to clients. In Study 2, we found that (a) raters were generally disappointed with the usability and functionality of many of the 10 apps being tested; (b) many mediators reported regretting they had recommended certain apps; and (c) some of the lesser-known new apps were rated higher than some of the better-known ones. In Study 3 users reported the messaging function to be of most importance, followed by ability to export data, with the shared calendar the third most important function.

The structure of the symposium is as follows. First, we set the scene and then present key findings from our recently completed two-year study of popular post-separation parenting apps. We then describe the perceived risks and benefits of 9 popular apps from the perspectives of family law practitioners as well as app users. Next, we launch one of the key outcomes from our study: a free web tool to help separated parents (and family law practitioners) identify which app(s) or app features might best suit their (or their clients’) needs, circumstances and budget. Finally, we map future research and practice directions.

This symposium will provide practitioners with detailed knowledge of 9 popular post-separation parenting apps in Australia – and identify the benefits and risks of certain app features for clients in high-conflict. It will also encourage practitioners to discuss with clients not just the tone and content of app-based communication, but also the how and when of communication.

The study is funded by the Australian Research Council (LP200100413) in partnership with the Australian National University, the University of Wollongong, and Relationships Australia (Canberra and Regions, and Victoria).

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Bruce Smyth is Professor of Family Studies with the Australian National University (ANU) Centre for Social Research and Methods. He has worked as a social scientist in family law for almost three decades.

Jason Payne is Professor of Criminology and Social Policy with the University of Wollongong. He is an applied, empirical criminologist with particular expertise in quantitative longitudinal methods.

Genevieve Heard is a Senior Researcher with Relationships Australia Victoria. She has published widely in the area of families and family law.

Glenn Althor is a Senior Evaluation Officer with Relationships Australia but was employed by Relationships Australia Canberra & Regions during the early phases of this project. He is a highly experienced mixed methods researcher.