Did you hear the one about the research studies that cited that Facebook is causing 20% of today’s divorces? Press releases headlined it. The news media ran stories about it. “Experts” validated it. People repeated it around the water cooler and their social networks. And everyone talked about it like it was a real stat. Unfortunately, the joke is on all of us.
[Update 3/12/11: Two days after our blog article was posted, The Wall Street Journal ran a similar story on the Irreconcilable Claim: Facebook Causes 1 in 5 Divorces. The WSJ writer (Carl Bialik) gives us props in his blog Divorcing Hype from Reality in Facebook Stats.]
So how did we buy into the fastest growing, most widespread urban myth in the world?
It started in late 2009, gained traction over the next several months, spread like a viral YouTube video throughout 2010, and finally, after being repeated for 14 months, it took on its most recent form declaring: “Facebook linked to one in five divorces in the United States.”
How did the whole thing get started?
Apparently Mark Keenan, the founder and managing director of an online divorce firm in the UK (Divorce-Online) had “heard from my staff that there were a lot of people saying they had found out things about their partners on Facebook and I decided to see how prevalent it was.”
The self-described “UK leader in online divorce services and solutions” sent out a press release on December 21, 2009 with their findings under the headline: “Facebook is bad for your marriage – research finds.”
Keenan said, “I was really surprised to see that 20 percent of all the petitions contained references to Facebook.”
How rigorous was the research?
According to the press release, “Research for Divorce-Online was carried out on 20th December 2009 with a sample size of 5,000 divorce petitions.” In fact, they “scanned their divorce petition database for the use of the word Facebook, and found 989 instances of the word in over 5,000 divorce petitions sampled.”
And what about Divorce-Online? They claimed to have helped over 60,000 couples achieve an amicable divorce since starting in 1999. This is roughly 3.5 percent of the approximate 1.66 million divorces in that time period. Their primary clients are those who want “an uncontested divorce without needing the services of a solicitor.” Our best guess is that these are younger couples with few if any real assets or property, and couples without children…a far cry from reflecting the general population.
Where did the 1-in-5 stat come from?
The combination of research-sounding buzz phrases like “sample size,” “sampled,” and “scanned” with dates and figures must have made the methodology sound legit.
On the same day the press release hit the faxes and inboxes, The Telegraph looks to be the first news source to bite. Their headline proclaimed that “Facebook is fuelling divorce, research claims.”But it was the sub-heading that said it all: “Facebook is being cited in almost one in five of online divorce petitions, lawyers have claimed. “ With several other UK pubs sharing the story and tens of thousands of people recommending the Telegraph article to their Facebook networks (in the pre-Like days)…within a day, the sub-heading morphed into the main headline:
- Daily Mail (Dec 22) – “Facebook ‘sex chats’ blamed for one in five divorces”
- CNET (Dec 22) – “UK divorce lawyers: A fifth of cases Facebook-related”
- NY Daily News (Dec 23) – “Irreconcilable wall posts? Nearly 1 in 5 divorce cases cite Facebook, lawyers say”
- Times of India (Dec 24) – “One in five divorce cases use Facebook as evidence”
From there, numerous international news sites carried the news of the danger Facebook posed to marriages in their own languages. Countless Tweets shared the dire news among the millions of Twitter users. By New Year’s, the one-in-five figure had become ingrained in the public conscience.
Another study adds fuel to the fire
In February 2010, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) released findings from a survey of its 1,600 members in a news release with the headline: “Big surge in social networking evidence says survey of nation’s top divorce lawyers.”
The AAML reported on two oft-cited (and seemingly credible) survey results. First, “81% of the nation’s top divorce attorneys say they have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence during the past five years.” Second, “Facebook is the primary source of this type of evidence according to 66% of the AAML respondents, while MySpace follows with 15%, Twitter at 5%, and other choices listed by 14%.”
Who reported on Facebook-related divorce stories in 2010?
Virtually everyone! This was one of the hottest topics of the year on news programs, talk radio, in publications and on websites and blogs! Here’s just a sampling of the coverage:
- msnbc.com – “Facebook is divorce lawyers’ new best friend”
- foxnews.com – “Facebook to Blame for Divorce Boom”
- CBSnews.com – “Why Divorce Lawyers Adore Facebook”
- Chicago Tribune – “Do social media sites make cheating easier?”
- Miami Herald – “Facebook becoming key evidence in divorces”
- Mashable.com – “Facebook Becoming a Prime Source for Divorce Case Evidence”
Things are going to get a bit confusing here real soon, so it is important to remember that this was not a survey of all divorce attorneys, but AAML members only. Also, talking with a spokesperson from the AAML, they have never reported that Facebook was a cause of any number of divorces.
Another press release adds to the mass confusion
With two different sources from the legal field citing statistics related to Facebook and divorces, it’s understandable that the general public could mix up the details surrounding the numbers.
On February 28, 2011, Loyola University Medical Center sent out a press release with the headline: “Facebook Linked to One in Five Divorces In the United States.” (Notice something new in the headline? Think red, white and blue. )
How a prestigious university could send out a press release that mixes up who said what and what was said is really confusing. The statement never backs up the headline, and the content of the release completely botches the AAML statistics.
At the request of an AAML representative, Loyola University fixed their release twice (see the new cleaned up version as of March 8, 2011). But a week is forever in the media world, and the headline from the original release had spread to all corners of the world.
The urban myth gets fanned into a flame
How the media could run with the headline from Loyola’s release without fact-checking it is downright baffling.
But many did. Cable news channels, newspapers, radio and TV news programs, and many blogs and websites have reported on the new “research” findings. And the few “facts” that were cited got bungled up…BIG TIME!
- Fox News – “Facebook Blamed for 1 in 5 Divorces in US”
- Toronto Sun – “Facebook evidence used in 20% of US divorce cases”
- The Guardian – “Facebook cited in 20% of US divorces”
- PerezHilton.com – “Reason For 1 in 5 Divorces in the US: Facebook”
But no one really reads the stories, right? The headlines tell us everything we need to know, which is the main motivator for people share the “news” through Twitter and Facebook.
Is there any truth to the story at all?
Here is what we DO know:
- The Divorce-Online press release, while technically accurate, smells like they overstated their claims and tried to legitimize their “research findings” as something more than an administrative assistant thumbing through their clients’ files and counting the number of times the word Facebook shows up regardless of its context.
- The AAML press release accurately communicates the findings from its members.
- Loyola University Medical Center had three press releases. The first was an epic fail (which caused all the recent confusion). The second was better, but still bad. The third finally got it right. (Send them every divorce lawyer joke you know…even though they’re not attorneys).
Every release accomplished its goal…get noticed and get written about. As the media stories go, any headline about divorce attorneys using Facebook for evidence gathering is probably fairly accurate. Anything with “1 in 5 divorces” or “20% of divorces” in the headline should be passed over.
Here is what we know that we don’t know:
- There is no valid research, study, survey or collection of data that accurately reveals how many divorces have been caused by Facebook.
- No AAML study exists that states the percentage or number of divorces attributed to Facebook.
- There is no researcher that has counted the number of marriages negatively impacted by Facebook.
- There is no valid statistic to support the statement that “one-in five divorces” are caused by Facebook. Not in America, Not in the UK. Not anywhere.
Why does it matter?
Facebook is revolutionizing how we do relationships. It affects all of our relationships including: marriages, families, dating relationships, parents and their kids, grandparents and grand kids, friendships, and the list goes on. Social media is not going away anytime soon.
Learning the etiquette of online communities, how to better relationships through social networks, and how to balance face-time with time on Facebook are must-have skills for 21st Century relationships to thrive.
A stat that states that 20% of marriages fail due to this technology scares some from joining the social network, helps some justify prematurely divorcing instead of working toward reconciliation, and in general, gives Facebook an undeserved and unjustified negative image.
We have heard a lot of horror stories from spouses and couples. Some married people are using Facebook to live out their midlife crisis. Some married Facebookers are being confronted with a surge of unexpected feelings and emotions due to friending and interacting with an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. Some are crossing the line by having an emotional affair, and an unfortunate number of marriages have ended due to a spouse finding someone else through Facebook.
Couples need to talk face-to-face and set up boundaries to keep their online time and relationships from acting as cyber-threats to their marriage.
(Go to SocialMediaCouple.com for large selection of articles on what you can do to protect your marriage on Facebook and how to strengthen your relationships with Facebook. Check out Facebook and Your Marriage for everything a married Facebooker needs to know about surviving and thriving in the world’s most popular online community.)
While Facebook-related marriage issues are a new phenomenon, until someone has done some real research on it, trying to attach a number, figure or percentage to it is only adding fuel to an urban myth that is already blazing out of control.
K. Jason and Kelli Krafsky (a.k.a. The Social Media Couple) are nationally-recognized specialists in social media and relationships. They write and speak to help people balance technology and their relationships, use common sense and set healthy guard rails for their marriages, families and relationships in this social media age. They are the authors of Facebook and Your Marriage (2010), the first book ever written on how the social network affects marriages and what couples can do about it. Find their articles, tools and tips at SocialMediaCouple.com, YourTango.com and other sites. The Krafskys are regularly interviewed by and referenced in the media for their practical input and advice for couples and parents. The Krafskys live in the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountains with their four children.
Copyright © 2011 K. Jason and Kelli Krafsky – Permission granted to use and reproduce with proper source citation.