Think twice before you blog about last night's romantic assignations or post photos of your New Year's party; such choices can affect a graduate student's academic and professional career. What's more, the online personal lives of students raise concerns such as how much supervisors and training directors can ethically use online information, says Keren Lehavot, who received the 2007 APA Graduate Student Ethics Prize for her paper, "'MySpace' or yours? The ethical dilemma of graduate students' personal lives on the Internet." The award-sponsored by the APAGS and the APA Ethics Committee-included an expenses-paid trip to present her paper at APA's 2007 Annual Convention in San Francisco and a $1,000 stipend. In addition, Lehavot's winning paper will appear in the journal Ethics & Behavior this year.
With blogs and networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook gaining popularity with graduate students, says Lehavot, the details of their personal lives are often just a Google search away.
"When you use the Internet, you are in a different context than in your academic or professional life, and you just don't think about the impacts of things you post," says Lehavot, a third-year clinical psychology graduate student at the University of Washington.
However, it's unclear how potential employers or schools use the information they find online. A survey distributed at the 2007 conference of the Association of Directors of Psychology Training Clinics found that 7 percent of clinic directors and 3 percent of internship sites had no formal policy on using the Internet to search for applicant information.
In light of this finding, Lehavot recommends that training programs:
Establish formal policies and standards that state whether prospective students can and should be looked up on the Internet as part of the decision-making process.
Revise application materials to state whether prospective students' online information will or has the potential to be accessed by program faculty.
Educate students on the risks of Internet posting. Future internship sites may, for example, check up on prospective interns, and personal information shared online could undermine the psychologist-client relationship.
Students must also recognize how their online activities can affect their careers, says Lehavot. She suggests that students:
Reflect on the implications their disclosures have on fellow students, colleagues, faculty and clients.
Use online privacy protection measures such as restricted access, passwords and pseudonyms whenever possible.
Sharing personal information online has its risks, but Lehavot believes that when done with caution, it can be a useful tool for students and psychologists.
"Graduate students use these networking sites as a way to keep in touch and as a way to network with their peers and get comments on their research," she says. "You just have to weigh it against the other side, which is what might be the cost of this?"