Maintaining Boundaries in an Online World

Maintaining Boundaries in an Online World

One of the mainstays of ethical practice and effective therapeutic practice is the maintenance of clinical boundaries. Clear boundaries are necessary in order for both therapist and client to understand the nature and purpose of their relationship with each other. Boundaries in therapy distinguish psychotherapy from other types of relationships. Confusion about the therapist-client relationship can only interfere with the goals and process of psychotherapy. A client who comes to view the therapist as a friend, lover, or business associate – anything other than his or her source of professional help – is likely to have difficulty making use of the therapeutic alliance. In consideration of the implicit power imbalance that exists between therapist and client, the burden of responsibility for maintaining boundaries always falls upon the therapist.

Blurring of Roles

One of the many challenges to professional boundaries posed by participation in social networking is the fuzziness surrounding online relationships. There are actually at least two dynamics that need to be discussed here. The first is the blurring of the lines between personal and professional relationships, and the second is a phenomenon that seems to influence some individuals to self-disclose or act out more intensely online than they would in person.

The Online Disinhibition Effect

Complicating the picture further is a phenomenon that has been termed by Suler (2004) as the “online disinhibition effect.” This is essentially the observation that while online, some people self-disclose or act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person. People online tend to have a loosening of both behavioral inhibitions and boundaries. Self-disclosure in itself can be therapeutic, of course, but too much disclosure with loose boundaries can lead to toxic disinhibition and embarrassing content online. Researchers have found that three factors facilitate online disinhibition: anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye contact (Lapidot-Lefler, 2015).

Social Hyperreality

Introducing further complexity into the equation is Borgmann’s (1984, 1992, 1999) early conceptualization of social hyperreality. He called it the device paradigm, described as “a technologically-driven tendency to conform our interactions with the world to a model of easy consumption… the way in which online social networks may subvert or displace organic social realities by allowing people to offer one another stylized versions of themselves for amorous or convivial entertainment.” I.e., the online version of a person may be very different than the person in real life.

In this light, not only do therapists and their clients have to assimilate new and startling data about each other found in online media, they also have to discern whether it represents the real person or his/her digital avatar.

The upthrust of all of this is that therapists must go to extraordinary lengths to assure that their therapeutic relationships do not devolve into something less than what is required for single-minded attention to the best interests of their clients. Even an established and carefully constructed therapy relationship can be unwittingly unraveled by a chance encounter on Facebook. Even when the therapist is mindful of professional boundaries and judicious in the use of self-disclosure, an indiscreet posting or picture on his or her social network page – when viewed by a client – can largely undo prior efforts.

Course excerpt from:

Ethics and Social MediaEthics and Social Media is a 2-hour online continuing education (CE) course that examines the use of Social Networking Services (SNS) on both our personal and professional lives. Is it useful or appropriate (or ethical or therapeutic) for a therapist and a client to share the kinds of information that are routinely posted on SNS like Facebook, Twitter, and others? How are psychotherapists to handle “Friending” requests from clients? What are the threats to confidentiality and therapeutic boundaries that are posed by the use of social media sites, texts, or tweets in therapist-client communication?

The purpose of this course is to offer psychotherapists the opportunity to examine their practices in regard to the use of social networking services in their professional relationships and communications. Included are ethics topics such as privacy and confidentiality, boundaries and multiple relationships, competence, the phenomenon of friending, informed consent, and record keeping. A final section offers recommendations and resources for the ethical use of social networking and the development of a practice social media policy. Course #20-75 | 2016 | 32 pages | 15 posttest questions

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Our online courses provide instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion. Click here to learn more. Have a question? Contact us. We’re here to help!

Professional Development Resources is a nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) organized in 1992. We are approved to sponsor continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners; and are CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).

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