Feature

Social media Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace have complicated the lives of psychologists, professors and graduate students as the personal becomes public--sometimes unintentionally, according to a symposium at APA's Annual Convention.

Psychology practitioners are finding that an increasing number of clients are Googling them to find out not only whether they are licensed but where they live, what their personal interests are and anything else that makes its way onto the Internet.

"It really raises the issue of if we're allowed to have a personal life, and of course, the answer is yes," said Jeffrey E. Barnett, PsyD, an independent practitioner in Maryland. However, he warned that "everything you put on the Web can be accessed .... You can't take it back, and that's a big issue."

In addition, practitioners have to think about whether they are changing the nature of their relationships by participating as "friends" on MySpace, Facebook or other online social networking sites, and whether it's OK to accept "friend" invitations from current or former clients.

"We have to be aware that boundaries are porous," he said. "What are the safeguards we can use?"

University of Washington graduate student Keren Lehavot presented findings from an exploratory survey to determine the online activity of graduate students in psychology. On the one hand, she said, these students find social media provide "relatively effortless socializing, both personally and professionally." But on the other hand, these sites raise the possibility of personal information leaking unintentionally into psychologists' professional lives.

"The Internet has redefined the process of self-disclosure," she said.

Lehavot's survey found that large percentages of psychology grad students have pages on Facebook and MySpace, and that many do not restrict access to their pages. She also found that many students who conduct psychotherapy as part of their practicum or internship training have done Internet searches on their clients to establish the "truth" of some information revealed during treatment and to gather information for clinical reasons. Clients might also look up psychotherapists to establish their psychological credentials and trust.

In some cases, Lehavot found clients had encouraged their therapists to visit their social media pages to learn more about them. In at least one case she cited, the client and therapist visited the client's site together, demonstrating that "there's room for opportunity when [this is] done collaboratively."

Finally, David V. Powers, PhD, who teaches psychology at Loyola College in Maryland, said his school has guidelines for undergraduate and graduate student use of social media but none for faculty--leaving some of them wondering what's appropriate behavior.

But many faculty have yet to confront the changes that social media will inevitably bring to their relationships with students.

"Faculty are behind the times," he said. "They're still thinking in terms of e-mail rather than Facebook."