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Long gone are the days when we wondered what our first loves look like now or what our best friends from fifth grade do for a living. Thanks to Facebook, Google and other social media outlets, we can often satisfy our curiosity in a few keystrokes. But such technologies also present a dilemma for psychologists and psychology graduate students: Should you ever search a client online?

In most cases, search only if you have the client's consent, says Jeffrey E. Barnett, PsyD, past chair of APA's Ethics Committee. It's OK to pull up a client's personal website or Facebook page during a therapy session to see pictures of his or her children or to better understand a personal crisis he's coping with, says Barnett. But spying just because you can is inappropriate, he says.

"Most psychologists wouldn't like to find out that a client was parking outside our house with binoculars each night," says Barnett. "If we are snooping on them electronically, how would that make them feel and affect the relationship?"

Protecting the safety of a client or a third party may warrant a search, says Stephen H. Behnke, PhD, JD, director of APA's Ethics Office. "But one must always weigh the clinical implications, especially if the client has not provided consent," he says. Until the field issues more formal guidance on Internet searching, psychologists should constantly monitor their motivations when determining whether it's necessary to gather client information online, says Behnke.

"Personal curiosity is not a clinically appropriate reason to do a search," says Behnke. "Ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this? What will I derive that will be helpful to the professional relationship?'"

On the flip side, what if a client pursues you online, such as by sending you a friend request on Facebook? Don't automatically ignore it and risk hurting your clients feelings, but don't feel obligated to accept either, says Barnett. Instead, use the request as an opportunity to discuss how being "friends" on a public platform could complicate or even harm your therapeutic relationship by, for example, sparking jealousy if a newly widowed woman sees her therapist walking on the beach with her husband in Fiji, he says.

To head off such troubles, Keely Kolmes, PsyD, a therapist in San Francisco, has developed a social media policy for clients to read before they begin therapy. The policy covers her stance on searching clients (not unless she has reason to suspect they might be in danger) and friending clients (she doesn't, to protect both parties' privacy), among other topics.

"I want to be clear that, while I care about them, we aren't friends," says Kolmes. "We have a different relationship, and it needs to be cared for in different ways."

Kolmes, a Twitter regular who has 20,000 "followers" reading her psychology news updates, doesn't accept invitations to follow her clients on Twitter and discourages them from responding to her tweets. But even with a clear social media policy, there's still room for worry, she says. "My biggest concern would be our having an exchange without my knowing I'm interacting with my patient," says Kolmes.


Jeffrey E. Barnett, PsyD, will discuss these and other technology-in-practice dilemmas at the APA Annual Convention "R u red e 4 ths? The practice of psychology in the digital age," Saturday, Aug. 14, 2–2:50 p.m. Stephen H. Behnke, PhD, JD, and Keely Kolmes, PsyD, will also explore these topics at the session " Social Media and Psychology—Opportunities and Challenges for Practitioners," Saturday, Aug. 14, 3–4:50 p.m.