Mental health professionals have worried for years about their clients digging for personal information about them on the Internet. But what about when psychotherapists consult Google to unearth personal information about their clients? Do psychotherapists carry the same concerns for client privacy that they do for their own?
Some mental health professionals assert that what clients post on the web is public information, making it fair game for review. And, yes, it is one thing if you are in a forensic role, and your job is to investigate your client. But what if your role is clinical and involves building a relationship of trust and authenticity? Do we somehow have a right to access all of a person’s archived Internet data simply because they visited our office seeking care?
Those who assert that clinicians have a right to search for this information seem to be expressing a sense of entitlement to a patient’s out-of-session life. Reasons given for looking for this information include assessing risk and verifying information shared in treatment.
But would these same clinicians attend a performance or a talk a client was giving and not tell the client they had attended? Would they go observe other social events secretly and not share with their client that they had done so? It is the discretion provided by the Internet that seems to allow some clinicians an excuse for engaging in online behaviors they would never endorse offline.
For most people, taking time to develop trust and a connection before divulging difficult information is part of healthy boundaries, even when seeking psychological treatment. A psychotherapist who rushes to discover what a client hasn’t yet shared may be contaminating the therapy relationship or re-enacting boundary violations that the client has already experienced. Many clients of mine share deeper secrets as the therapy progresses, and for me to race ahead to these points of vulnerability in a web search would seem to to be shortchanging both of us in the clinical relationship.
Those who argue clients look us up on the Internet, and therefore it is fair game for us to do the same, are failing to note a key difference: There is a significant power differential when psychologists seek supplemental personal information about clients.
As mental health professionals, we have the ability to use this information to influence our diagnostic impressions. We hold authority in our relationships with our clients that they do not hold with us. We are not equals. That is why we have licensing boards and an informed consent process with clients in which we are required to share with them our policies and protocols.
When patients look us up before retaining our services as professionals, they are typically seeking information about how we practice or if others recommend our services. If we routinely engage in the practice of researching our clients without informing them that we do so, I’d say it has the potential to be exploitative, harmful, and deceptive.
The extent of such a search — and whether it is clinically warranted — may alter its significance. In my opinion, those who do so without analyzing their motives and without informing their clients may be taking advantage of those who are in their care. If you are compelled to seek out this information, why not do such a search with your client present? Why not do it openly, with full disclosure, so that the two of you may discuss the accuracy of what you find then and there and actually incorporate it into treatment?
None of this is to say that it’s possible to avoid incidental contacts with patients on the Internet. It is all too easy to stumble onto a client’s Facebook page or Twitterfeed by following a shared connection. But what one does when they arrive there does matter.
Do you read every post on the client’s Wall and browse his photo albums? Or do you hit the back button on your browser and let your client enjoy a life outside of the therapy room, choosing for himself what to bring into treatment? I’d vote for the latter.