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The wealth of information available at our fingertips with the advances of our online world is astonishing. In seconds, we can find a long-lost high school friend and see pictures of their spouse, their children, learn where they work and how they fill their life. It’s easy to access, and quickly renders other forms of research and communication obsolete.

As we struggle with how to teach our children to manage this powerful tool responsibly, therapists are faced with their own struggles of how to manage their online boundaries and use social media in an ethical and responsible manner. When a client misses multiple appointments, or a therapist doubts the validity of a story told in therapy, it can be very tempting to anonymously search online for that client. Just “Googling” a client or looking at their Facebook page to get some information won’t cause any harm, will it?

A therapist might look up information about their clients for a variety of reasons. Some are more common than others – fact checking, checking for delusions of grandeur or reality testing, and general monitoring for well-being, to name a few. When a client misses several appointments and doesn’t return calls, would you feel relieved if you saw pictures posted online of your client with their family on a vacation out of town? But is it your business? If you follow through and search that client, you may feel relieved, but at what cost to your therapeutic relationship with that client? How do we decide if – or when – searching for information outside of the therapy session is a betrayal of the therapeutic process?

It is not an easy decision to choose not to access readily-available information when there is doubt about a client’s safety. A study in 2014 of 200 clinicians evaluated how therapists encountered information about their clients online and their opinions about that access.1Of the 200 clinicians:

  • 76% encountered or sought information online without client awareness,
  • 90% believed there was no effect on their ability to provide services,
  • 61% considered it a slight to small boundary crossing,
  • 22% did not consider it a boundary crossing at all.

Surprisingly, only 4% of those same therapists reported that they shared in treatment that they had searched their clients online or the information they discovered in such searches. Most therapists in this study thought there was, at most, a slight boundary issue, but only a small minority admitted to their clients that they had information about them from the internet. The real danger seems to lie in a failure of communication. If you address information discovered online in therapy and the client realizes this is not something they have shared, the trust and the relationship you’ve built with them, may be over.

Ethics boards for social workers, counselors and other helping professions are taking on this question of accessing information and providing guidance for licensed professionals to guard against unknowingly stepping into an ethical dilemma. Overall, the recommendation is to avoid online contact with clients outside of a professional context, including searching for information. For example, the American Counseling Association has adopted standards into their Ethics Code to address safeguarding professionals’ presence online. Standard H.6 recommends maintaining separate online accounts for professional and personal online profiles, clearly explaining limitations in online contact to their clients, respecting the privacy of their clients’ presence on social media and avoid disclosing confidential information. Additionally, therapists should utilize stringent privacy settings to protect against contact with clients other than professionally.

As technology brings our worlds closer than ever, we need to keep informed of changes in our respective boards’ codes that follow these advancements and guide our professional practice.  

1Kolmes, K. and Taube, D. (2014). Seeking and Finding Our Clients on the Internet: Boundary Considerations in Cyberspace. Accessed from

Jessica Racine

Jessica Racine, MS, LPC, NCC, is Clinical Training Manager at KidsPeace.