Monday, September 28, 2009

Should Therapists Snoop in Their Patient's Facebook Site?

A colleague recently asked me this question:
What do you think about therapists going to a patient's Facebook site if that site is open to the public, not just to people who the patient has friended? My younger colleagues think it's OK - like reading about your patient in the newspaper. It doesn't feel right to me but I'm not sure why?
What a terrific question!

From the perspective of privacy ethics there's nothing wrong with going to the Facebook site. After all - the patient has structured it so that anybody can come to the site to see what's there. In that limited way the younger colleagues are right - it isn't a violation of privacy.

But it matters what kind of a clinician we're talking about here. If a primary care physician was working with a patient on a self-management problem like difficulty sleeping or weight loss and was getting nowhere, I wouldn't fault her for going to the Facebook site as long as she was prepared to tell the patient about it, as in:
I've been troubled about why we're not making any progress in what we're working on - I just don't get it. So instead of running more tests I went onto your Facebook site. I think I can see what our problem is...
But what about a psychotherapist doing the same thing? Here I think the younger colleagues are missing the boat. Psychotherapy isn't just a matter of gathering information as part of the effort to solve a problem. The relationship itself is at the heart of the effort. The commitment on both sides is to use the experience of the relationship on behalf of the treatment goals. It wouldn't be surprising for the patient to see if the therapist has a Facebook site, but it would be important for the patient to bring the fact of the search into the therapy. What did the patient's curiosity focus on? What did what he found mean to him? What feelings were associated with the process?

If the therapist and patient were talking about the patient's self-presentation on Facebook it would be fine for the therapist to say - "would it be OK for us to look at it together right now?" That would lead to collaborative inquiry. But it wouldn't be OK for the therapist to go to the site covertly. What was the therapist looking for? Why didn't he bring up whatever the question was with the patient? If the therapist has a question he should ask it. If he goes to Facebook instead it suggests that he feels an impediment to direct work with his patient. That's what's key - not the information on the Facebook site.

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