Self-disclosure: it’s a two-way street.

Self-disclosure has always been a hot topic in supervision. How much self-disclosure is too much? The temptation exists when a client is struggling with a particular issue with which the therapist may have extensive knowledge and/or experience which may entice the therapist to self-disclose. However, with social networking, self-disclosure without even intending this becomes a realistic concern for therapists who maintain a presence on social networking sites.

How much information can a client obtain about a therapist with a social networking site? This will depend on the privacy settings that the clinician selects as well as the scope of information posted on a personal or professional site. For example, if a resume is posted on a professional networking site, such as LinkedIn, what would prevent a client from reviewing it and thus having access to a practitioner’s home address, personal email and/or phone number?

Another consideration is that this type of self disclosure can take the focus away from the client’s issues. Consider this: online social networking with a client is self-disclosure at a very high level. Excessive personal information about the professional jeopardizes keeping the focus on the priorities of the client as well as the goals of therapy.

Conversely, social networking with a client risks uncovering information about a client that he or she did not wish to disclose within the parameters of a therapeutic relationship. Alternatively, the client was not ready to disclose particular information, and this revelation ahead of the client’s timing schedule can have a negative effect (e.g. early termination) on the therapy. Although a client may enjoy conducting online research on the clinician, it is a different reality for the client when it is her or his own personal information that is being discussed.

It is advisable for the therapist to have clear parameters for personal boundaries (both for him or herself as well as the client’s personal boundaries) and be able to have this conversation during therapy, always keeping the client’s best interest as the guiding principle.

Breach of privacy

It is incumbent upon therapists to become knowledgeable about social networking technology, including encryption, in order to protect confidential information. It is also important to understand the limits of confidentiality that may result due to mismanaged privacy settings on either the clinician’s or client’s part.

Because the internet is an imperfect communication tool at this stage of its development, the risk exists that if communication sent over the internet is not encrypted, it is possible to be seen by people without authorization to view the communication, or a security breach by the site and or a hacking incident may make the communication at risk for disclosure (perhaps to millions of people!) without permission.

A client making contact with a therapist on a social networking site, may feel less inhibited than in a face-to-face meeting, and may begin revealing private personal information that is inappropriate for the setting. The professional should be prepared to react quickly and purposefully in redirecting the client’s communication in order to protect the client’s privacy. It is important to have frank and ongoing discussions with these types of clients about the limits of confidentiality on social networking sites, the importance of maintaining personal boundaries, and how this can be done in order to protect oneself, and/or develop a positive sense of self.

Negative impact on the professional relationship

Important visual or other sensory (such as gut reaction) clues that therapists rely on in face-to-face consultations are not possible on social networking sites, which can result in meaningful information from the client may be easily overlooked by the therapist, thus causing the client frustration or dissatisfaction with the communication. This can result in a clinician’s failure in establishing (or maintaining) an effective therapeutic alliance with the client.

In the case of a client emergency, care must be taken at the start of the relationship so that the therapist has the name of an emergency contact as well as a clear emergency plan for each client. Imagine chatting with a client on a social networking site, and not being able to provide emergency assistance if the client describes a crisis situation that they are struggling with at that time. The ramifications for the possibility of negative client outcome as well as malpractice potential are definitely present in this type of situation.

Information provided via social networking site is likely superficial

When a client describes symptoms on a social networking site, and they cannot be seen or heard by the therapist, the clinician is limited to a “best guess” regarding what the client is actually describing. This is especially true of a chat with a relatively new client, with whom one has not yet established a strong therapeutic relationship.

Additionally, if the chat takes place in a public forum, the clinician may attempt to tone down the client’s discussion, or even refer the discussion to another place and time in an effort to prevent the client from revealing too much personal information and thus putting their own confidentiality at risk. The client may accuse the clinician of keeping the discussion superficial, but this may well provide the entry point for a discussion about the importance of confidentiality, being mindful of time and place for discussion private, personal concerns, and how a social networking site is not the appropriate venue for a therapy session.