Harvard Paper Explores Politics of Googling People in Therapy

The client-therapist relationship is one of the most well-established and important components of modern practice, and many professionals feel very strongly about their duty to preserve confidentiality and confine the relationship to discussions held during sessions. Yet in the digital age, when people are increasingly prone to looking up new contacts online in a quest for information or personal background, many therapists, counselors, and other professionals in the field may be engaging in online searches performed on their clients, an issue discussed in full in a recent paper produced at Harvard University.

The paper, which doesn’t cite any specific statistics on the number of therapists who may be taking part in the practice, but which estimates that over half of the professional population may well be involved, questions the ethical viability of Googling clients. Some therapists may feel that getting as much information about a client as possible is important for providing good work, and may also search for potentially helpful data on past violence or other legal problems. But many professionals, especially those with a classical idea of the therapist-client relationship, are likely to be turned off by the idea of this digital “breach,” though still others may feel that such searches are okay either with the client’s consent or in their presence.

The paper questions whether understanding the physical, rather than the psychic, reality of the patient’s world is really critical for providing adequate care, and speculates about whether the obtaining of undisclosed information may interfere with the worldview presented by the client during sessions. A complex issue being discussed in-depth for what may be the first time, client Googling is raising many voices throughout the fields of psychology and psychiatry, with advocates on either side of the spectrum. Whether Googling will become more accepted or be shunned by the community entirely remains to be seen.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • alisia


    April 20th, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    I don’t think a psychologist looking up a client’s name online is anything bad at all.After all,the basis of the confidentiality thing is that the professional do not make the client’s identity public.So what’s wrong with him/her checking it up online himself/herself?!

    It may, in fact, help the client to treat the client in a much better manner by observing things about the client online.For example,he/she could find out what communities the client has subscribed to and thereby realize what interests the client!

  • Austin


    April 21st, 2010 at 3:16 AM

    Don’t do it! It’s wrong! Preconceived notions about someone will only lead you to judging this person before you even get to know him or her. How can that ever help them?

  • Drew


    April 21st, 2010 at 6:19 AM

    Although the information gained from the search can be used to learn about better understand the client,it may be pure inquisitiveness on part of the health professional.It may or may not qualify as a breach of privacy,because the items that the health professional can see(suppose on Facebook)regarding the client is only what the client has marked as public and not the private details.

  • Mary


    January 29th, 2014 at 6:02 AM

    Searching for a client on a search engine/social media site expands beyond breaking confidentiality, but impinges on consent to treatment. Part of consent is making the client aware of the parameters in therapy. The therapist has to determine if the information is pertinent and would it either advance or jeopardize treatment. Since more and more people are so willing to give up their privacy, they may need see a problem with this, but the clinician, who takes an ethical oath, needs to be mindful of their client’s rights.

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