With therapists and clients on the Internet, smartphones and various applications and social networking sites, the topic of Digital Ethics is current and of paramount importance to practitioners. Therapists are vulnerable in new ways online, and the questions of how to ethically, professionally manage social networking sites is complex and worth exploring.
Digital Ethics is the study of how to manage oneself ethically, professionally and in a clinically sound manner via online and digital mediums. Every psychologist who uses the Internet or a cell phone (which amounts to nearly all of us) must look at issues, such as:
- What can my clients find out about me online?
- Is it ethical for me to Google my clients?
- What if I find out information about my clients that is clinically significant?
- Should I be Facebook friends with my clients?
- How do I handle clients’ Friend requests on Facebook, or follows on Twitter?
In addition to these issues, there are the questions of how to handle bad Yelp or other online reviews; what digital or online correspondence belongs in the clinical records; how to keep secure records in the digital era.
The best way to explore these questions is to start doing research. Curious about what your clients can find out about you online? Conduct a search on yourself, using several different search terms, such as: “Dr. John Smith, Notown, State” or “Dr. Smith, psychologist” and so on. You may be surprised at what you find.
Be wise about Googling your clients. If you find something about them that is important, and they had not told you, this may alter the course of therapy. You may be in a position where your choices are to tell the client you Googled them (which they may or may not mind), or to try and separate what they tell you from what you found out elsewhere. Some therapists Google their clients for safety reasons, before the first session. Consider your own motives and consider consultation before searching for your clients.
Your clients may very well Google you! And they are not – nor should they be – restricted from doing so in any way. Many clients first find, and later research, their therapists online. Know what clients can find out about you online, and be prepared to answer questions on what is out there. We suggest setting up a Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts) with the various searches on your name, so you can be alerted when there is new information published online about you.
A negative online review can be damaging for your career. If you get one, the best thing to do is encourage your colleagues (never your clients, because soliciting testimonials from clients is unethical) to post positive reviews of you, to balance it out. Most people understand that there may be a person unsatisfied with a business, and that does not mean the business is bad overall.
Embarking on Facebook friendships with clients should be handled with care. We recommend placing clients on “Limited Profile” or creating a separate professional Facebook Page for your clinical and other professional work. Other practitioners simply do not interact with clients on social networking sites; you can choose any policy that is ethical and makes sense for you.