Ethics Rounds

Our Ethics Code distinguishes between our professional and our private lives. The code's second paragraph in the "Introduction and Applicability" section states, "This Ethics Code applies only to psychologists' activities that are part of their scientific, educational, or professional roles as psychologists .... These activities shall be distinguished from the purely private conduct of psychologists, which is not within the purview of the Ethics Code."

The Internet is providing ample opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the private and the professional by making available in the public domain what has customarily been considered private conduct. When information moves from the private to the public domain, there is an increased likelihood of its having an effect on our professional lives.

Psychology, of course, is not the only profession confronting this issue. An April 28 article in The Washington Post, "When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web," discussed how school districts are assessing the propriety of their 20-something teachers' Web site profiles. Changes in how we experience the private/public distinction brought about by technology carry with them profound ethical implications for the profession and raise vexing questions for both psychology and society. For example:

  • How do we define "private" in the age of the Internet?

  • How do we assess the impact of events in one's personal life on one's work-related activities?

  • Does the availability of so much information place us at greater risk for confusing personal value judgments with assessments of professional competence?

I shall not attempt to answer any of these questions.

Language quoted above from the Ethics Code suggests there is a clear demarcation between private and professional behavior. We live in an age, however, when within the span of seconds a point and a click with a cell-phone camera can render public what would almost certainly have remained private just a short time ago. In the space of a few years, the realm of what is private has receded significantly with a corresponding expansion in the domain of what is public. Moreover, what becomes public on the Internet may remain available for a very long time.

Such a profound shift can be examined on multiple levels and it would not be surprising if evidence even on the neuronal level reflected a shift in the balance between the public and the private spheres. The shift challenges us to reflect on the implications for our professional lives: So much that had been confined to our private lives is now potentially disclosed and available to colleagues and others with whom we work. Another challenge is to explore how well we--at all stages of professional development--truly appreciate the extent to which the Internet makes our personal lives publicly available. It will be interesting and informative to see data regarding what percentage of our patients and clients seek personal, nonwork-related information about us on the Internet.

The concept of distinguishing between two separate aspects of a psychologist's life is found in other parts of the Ethics Code. For example, as the "Introduction and Applicability" section of the Ethics Code contrasts "private" with "professional," so Ethical Standard 2.06 contrasts "personal" with "work-related":

2.06 Personal Problems and Conflicts

(a) Psychologists refrain from initiating an activity when they know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner.

(b) When psychologists become aware of personal problems that may interfere with their performing work-related duties adequately, they take appropriate measures, such as obtaining professional consultation or assistance, and determine whether they should limit, suspend, or terminate their work-related duties.

Defining "personal" in the age of the Internet, like defining "private," is a significant challenge. One possible definition of "personal" for the purposes of the Ethics Code would be "taking place outside of a context or relationship related to work." Ethical Standard 2.06 focuses us on how challenges in our personal lives, for example substance abuse or a depression, can impair our abilities to function competently. Read more broadly, Standard 2.06 also highlights how our personal lives inevitably intersect our work lives.

A divorce and ensuing custody dispute, the death of a loved one, one's own or an adult child's wedding or commitment ceremony are all events that are deeply felt and that may intersect with similar events in the lives of our patients or clients. That intersection can become more complex, not always in a detrimental manner, as the information becomes available to our patients and clients. Again, research on how the Internet is narrowing the gap--or perhaps blurring the distinction--between our personal and our work-related lives will be interesting and instructive and will certainly have clinical implications.

Information about us is increasingly available by virtue of the Internet. The availability of more information to us likewise raises complex ethical questions. An earlier "Ethics Rounds" column (www.apa.org/monitor/jan07/ethics.html) offered a discussion vignette in which the director of a clinical training program, Dr. Net, struggles with whether and how to talk with his trainees about personal information they are posting on the Internet regarding their dating lives, as well as about their involvement in online chat rooms. Dr. Net wants to make the interns aware of how these activities may affect their work, but is also concerned about being unduly intrusive into their private lives. While most training faculty would agree that it would be highly appropriate for Dr. Net to have this conversation with the trainees on a theoretical level, there is likely far less agreement about how actively faculty should search for information about trainees and training applicants on the Internet or how information that comes to a faculty's attention by way of third parties should be handled. Many private sector companies conduct Internet searches before making job offers. There does not appear to be a similar consensus in psychology.

Arguments on each side of this discussion are compelling. On one hand, more rather than less data is generally better; psychologists are trained to assess the usefulness of data for a given purpose; information on the Internet is publicly available information, no less so than what is posted on the bulletin board of a local coffee shop or supermarket; and Internet searches may be developing into the standard of practice in the private sector. On the other hand, acting upon information that a trainee or applicant has not provided to a program may be inconsistent with a respect for that individual's privacy and autonomy; information on the Internet is notoriously unreliable; and there is a "slippery slope" to seeking and relying on such information that risks turning psychologists into private investigators.

Our values and our view of the relationship between the personal and the professional will be central to these discussions. Over the past several years, APA's Ethics Office has been asked about applicants or trainees who have engaged in activities such as exotic dancing or a naturist lifestyle, which have come to a faculty's attention through the Internet. We are at a moment in our history when technology is highlighting issues that have been present in a much less dramatic form, much like a wave raises the height and energy level of the water's surface and thereby calls part of the sea to our attention.

The lens of culture may prove helpful in our thinking about this issue, in terms of how different generations view their relationship to the Internet and what information they choose to make available as a consequence. Culture is also important in terms of how our values play a role in reacting to and assessing information about our present and future colleagues that is now in a public forum and, even 10 years ago, would almost certainly have remained purely private. Ethics, values, culture and competence will therefore be central to our ongoing discussions about psychology and the Internet.


Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, is director of APA's Ethics Office. Send questions, comments or suggestions regarding this column to Ethics Rounds.