“To Google or not to Google”[1]

Posted by: Dawn Schell on October 17, 2011 12:46 pm

Go ahead and Google yourself. 

How many hits did you get?  What kind of information is out there in cyberspace about you?  Photographs?  Training programs?  Schooling?  Home address?  Political or religious affiliations? Anything else? 

Now – think about this.  Lots of people you know have likely done the same thing – googled you – including your clients.  

Which brings up an excellent question. Should we, as counsellors, be googling our clients? Is it ethically appropriate to search for information about clients using the Internet? What about a client’s right to privacy or informed consent? 

“Whether it is to verify facts provided by the client, to obtain information perceived to be clinically relevant, or just out of curiosity, the types of information that can be accessed by therapists about clients are virtually limitless”1.  After all, information on the Internet is public [isn’t it?] and Internet searching and social networking are commonplace.   But does that make it okay for us as professionals? Just because we can does it mean we ought to? 

Recent research on the attitudes and behaviours of psychology doctoral students regarding this question shows that 67% felt it was never or usually not acceptable to search for information about a client using search engines and 76.8% felt it was never or usually not acceptable to search for client information on social networking websites. 

Yet [and this is fascinating to me] 97.8% reported they had searched for at least one client’s information using a search engine and 94.4% said they had searched using a social networking website [Go figure – we humans are inconsistent]. The main reasons given for searching for client information were; to gain a better understanding of the client’s outside life, to clarify personal information given (i.e. phone number or address), and to investigate issues that arose in therapy.

 If you are thinking about searching for information on one of your clients here are some questions to consider.  Why are you searching?  Does the client know you are doing it?  How and when do you get their consent? What will you do with any information you find? How would you handle the discovery of a potential risk to your client or catching them out in a lie?  And finally, do you document your search in your case file? 

In the CCPA Code of Ethics A2 statesCounsellors participate in only those practices which are respectful of the legal, civic, and moral rights of others, and act to safeguard the dignity and rights of their clients, students, and research participants”. 

B4 states “When counselling is initiated, and throughout the counselling process as necessary, counsellors inform clients of the purposes, goals, techniques, procedures, limitations, potential risks and benefits of services to be performed, and other such pertinent information”. 

So – to Google or not to Google?  What do you think?

Dawn Schell, MA, CCC is an Affiliate Counsellor with Worldwide Therapy Online Inc. www.therapyonline.ca

The opinions expressed in this blogpost are personal.

[1] DiLillo, D. & Gale, E. B. (2011). To Google or not to Google: Graduate Students’ use of the Internet to access personal information about clients.  Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 5(3), 160 – 166.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

0 comments on ““To Google or not to Google”[1]”

  1. Dear Dawn Schell

    Thank you for taking the time on googling. I had not even considered the idea of googling my clients-patients. Personally, I do not feel it is ever a necessary to google a patient. However, I am sort of tossed by the idea, because “what if” I am simply seeking an address or phone number? “What if” I am away from the office, and I need this contact information? Does googling my patients information fall under the same context?

    It is a very intriguing idea, discussion, and problem. Since I have yet to consider it, I doubt that I will ever have an issue with it, but now that it is mentioned, my ethical conundrum is peaked.


    Dr. Asa Don Brown

  2. Nicole says:

    I found your post very interesting and it brings up some very though-provoking points. I would love to know what other counsellors think about this and what their practices are. I know some who are very careful of the information that they post about themselves online (avoiding facebook and twitter accounts, etc). But what do they think about doing the searching themselves? Hmmmm, very interesting.

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