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By Garry Cooper
Therapists' Public Private Lives
As the influence of the old ideal of the inscrutable psychoanalytic practitioner has waned and informality increasingly has come to dominate our culture, more and more clinicians seem to believe that self-disclosure has a role in therapy. But a survey of 695 psychology grad students and psychologists in the April Professional Psychology: Research and Practice suggests that many clinicians haven't yet considered how the Internet, particularly the social media side of things, can give clients access to their personal information, often without their even knowing that it's happening.
While more than 70 percent of the therapists surveyed reported maintaining a personal web page or a social networking site, such as Facebook or Twitter, many erroneously believed they had adequate privacy settings, not realizing that clients can still view some of the correspondence, screeds, photographs, and videos they've posted, there and elsewhere on the Internet. In fact, a cautionary article in the March 10 Washington Post told of a male client who found a photo of his female therapist in a bathing suit online and reported it to her board. Some therapists have even been matched with clients on Internet dating services.
In the survey, younger therapists expressed less concern about safeguarding their privacy than experienced therapists did, but this may reflect a different attitude toward therapeutic boundaries among the electronic generation more than obliviousness to standards of good therapy. Can we really know whether it adversely affects therapy when clients secretly know facts about their therapists? California psychologist Ofer Zur, whose book Boundaries in Psychotherapy challenged the concept of boundary violations by pointing out the clinical usefulness of boundary crossings, has argued that, for the new generation of clients, using the Internet to find out about their therapists has become a normal part of the therapeutic process.
Whether or not clients' knowledge of a therapist's personal information is harmful to therapy, both the ethical guidelines and the research that would illuminate the issue continue to lag behind the everyday realities of life in the Internet Age.