No form of client communication is 100 percent guaranteed to be private. Conversations can be overheard, e-mails can be sent to the wrong recipients and phone conversation can be listened to by others.
But in today’s age of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, psychologists have to be more aware than ever of the ethical pitfalls they can fall into by using these types of communication.
“It’s easy not to be fully mindful about the possibility of disclosure with these communications because we use these technologies so often in our social lives,” says Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, director of APA’s Ethics Office. “It’s something that we haven’t gotten into the habit of thinking about.”
The Monitor sat down with Behnke to discuss the ethical aspects of the Internet for psychology practitioners and how to think about them.
Does the APA Ethics Code guide practitioners on social media?
Yes. The current Ethics Code was drafted between 1997 and 2002. While it doesn’t use the terms “social media,” “Google” or “Facebook,” the code is very clear that it applies to all psychologists’ professional activities and to electronic communication, which of course social media is.
As we look at the Ethics Code, the sections that are particularly relevant to social media are on privacy and confidentiality, multiple relationships and the section on therapy. The Ethics Code does not prohibit all social relationships, but it does call on psychologists to ask, “How does this particular relationship fit with the treatment relationship?”
Is the APA Ethics Office seeing any particular problems in the use of social media?
Everyone is communicating with these new technologies, but our ethical obligation is to be thoughtful about how the Ethics Code applies to these communications and how the laws and regulations apply.
For example, if you are communicating with your client via e-mail or text messaging, those communications might be considered part of your client’s record. Also, you want to consider who else might have access to the communication, something the client him- or herself may not be fully mindful of. When you communicate with clients, the communication may be kept on a server so anyone with access to that server may have access to your communications. Confidentiality should be front and center in your thinking.
Also, consider the form of communication you are using, given the kind of treatment you are providing. For example, there are two very different scenarios from a clinical perspective: In one scenario, you’ve been working with a client face-to-face and you know the client’s clinical issues. Then the client goes away on vacation and you have one or two phone sessions, or a session or two on Skype. A very different scenario is that the psychologist treats a client online, a client he or she has never met or seen. In this case, the psychologist has to be very mindful of the kind of treatment he or she can provide. What sorts of issues are appropriate to treat in that manner? How do the relevant jurisdiction’s laws and regulations apply to the work you are doing?
That’s an example of how the technology is out in front of us. We have this wonderful new technology that allows us to offer services to folks who may never have had access to a psychologist. At the same time, the ethical, legal and regulatory infrastructure to support the technology is not yet in place. A good deal of thought and care must go into how we use the technology, given how it may affect our clients and what it means for our professional lives.