To Google Or Not to Google ...Our Clients?

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

A more comprehensive article on Therapists conducting online searches on their clients

Modern digital technologies have raised many new and complex clinical, ethical and legal issues for psychotherapists. One of the more potent questions is whether it is OK for therapists to Google their clients.

Consider the following situations:
  • After the first couple sessions with a new client, the therapist wonders whether the client, who did not present very impressively, was bragging or delusional about being the president of a Fortune 500 company.
  • Your client attempted suicide and is lying unconscious in the hospital. In an attempt to save his life, would you search his FB profile or web site for clues as to what he may have ingested prior to loosing conscious?
  • Therapists, especially women who live alone and have a home office or work late in the office after other clinicians are gone may find that Googling new clients can help with their screening and their own safety considerations.
  • After a few sessions, a therapist suspects that she is being set up to get involved in a custody battle. She wonders if she can discover helpful information by searching her client’s name online.
  • A few months after the start of therapy with a rather angry and aggressive client, who was clearly dissatisfied with prior treaters, the therapist wonders if the client has a history of suing his treaters and considers searching for such information online.
When therapists find clinically or practice-significant information about their clients online:
  • A therapist discovers online that his new client has filed several board complaints against former therapists and has also sued a couple of them.
  • A therapist finds out online that a patient has an active and violent porn web site, which the client has not mentioned during therapy, even though therapy focuses on issues of intimacy and sexuality.
  • A therapist had a client who, at times, was dangerous to self and others and who abruptly dropped out of therapy. The therapist wants to search online to learn about the client’s well being.
  • An animal-lover therapist who uses Animal Assistant Therapy discovers online that a client has a long history of felony indictments for animal cruelty, an issue that was never brought up in therapy.
  • A therapist discovers online that her client has a past felony conviction for stalking a prior therapist and members of her family.
  • A gay therapist learns online that a new client is a member of a well-established hate group known to promote acts of violence against members of the LGBT community.
Main questions therapists must ask before searching their clients online:
  • Is it ethical to conduct an online search on a client without the client’s knowledge?
  • Is it ethical to search online for a client without the client’s (informed) consent?
  • If therapists Google their clients with neither the clients’ consent nor knowledge, must they afterwards inform their clients what they learned?
  • Is it ethical to Google clients in order to save lives, but not just to find more general information about them?
  • How may the fact that therapists Google their clients without their clients’ knowledge effect the therapeutic alliance?
  • How do or should therapists document their online searches of their clients?
  • Are the online searches by therapists legally discoverable?
  • Should I consult with an expert before I Google my client without the client’s knowledge?

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