Clinical Impact Statement: There are multiple ethical considerations for psychotherapists who utilize online and app-based dating services. This article provides guidance to assist mental health professionals in deciding whether to use these services and how to protect their online dating profiles to reduce the impact unintentional therapist disclosure could have on clients.
As of May 2018, approximately 50 million Americans are using online and mobile app dating services (hereafter referred to as “online dating”; Seetharaman & Wells, 2018). With one out of five relationships now starting online (Cacioppo et al., 2013; Hamilton, 2016), mental health professionals and graduate students are likely using these services. Indeed, a recent study of mental health professionals’ usage of online dating services found 69.6% of graduate students and 65.4% of professionals surveyed reported using these services, most (64.9%) while working as a therapist (O’Neil et al., 2018). One of the benefits of online dating is the increased accessibility in meeting potential partners (Finkel et al., 2012; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Online dating may be especially helpful for people with marginalized identities who may have a harder time finding a partner than more privileged groups (Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). For graduate students and professionals who moved to a new area and have a limited amount of free time, online dating can be a helpful way to meet potential partners (Donn & Sherman, 2002). There are many benefits to utilizing these services but there is potential risk and impact if a client finds their therapist’s online dating profile.
Despite the growing attention paid to ethical issues associated with psychologists’ use of social networking sites (DiLillo & Gale, 2011; Lannin & Scott, 2014; Lehavot et al., 2010; Taylor et al., 2010; Tunick et al., 2011; Zur, 2008), very little has been written about the use of online dating services’ potential ethical implications for mental health professionals. This lack of attention in the literature may result in training programs providing little to no coverage of the ethics of online and mobile app dating for mental health professionals.
What Does Online Dating Have To Do With Ethics?
The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code (2002) clearly states that the code “applies only to psychologists’ activities that are part of their scientific, educational, or professional roles” (p. 2). Some behaviors, however, are both personal and professional (Pipes, Holstein, & Aguirre, 2005). Although dating is an inherently personal and private activity, there are ways in which dating activities can also be public. For example, if a client sees their therapist kissing someone at a bar, this activity has the potential to affect the client. In public settings, clinicians can see who is around them before they act. However, information online can be viewed, often anonymously, by many people. Anonymous viewing is particularly true for online dating, bringing up unique ethical concerns related to unintentional self-disclosure of the therapist, unintentional self-disclosure of the client, and concerns regarding the field’s image if therapists and clients encounter one another’s profiles online.
Unintentional Therapist Disclosure
Clinicians have varying stances on the appropriateness of self-disclosure in therapy but how the client could be affected is a critical piece to evaluate when debating whether to disclose. The literature on the ethics of therapist self-disclosure highlights concerns that learning more about the therapist could potentially produce a dual relationship (Danzer, 2019; Taylor et al., 2010), cross professional boundaries (Audet, 2011; Danzer, 2019), alter the therapeutic relationship (Kolmes, 2013; Taylor et al., 2010), influence what clients disclose, affect the perception of the therapist as competent or credible (Audet, 2011), and/or increase issues related to transference (Taylor et al., 2010). Although the APA Code of Ethics does not have a standard forbidding therapist self-disclosure, it does have standards pertaining to avoiding harm and multiple relationships. Concerns about therapist self-disclosure and how this affects therapy uniquely affect clinicians who use online dating services. Most social networking sites, like Facebook and LinkedIn, enable individuals to stay in contact with people they already know but the purpose of joining an online dating site is to meet new people. To attract other people’s attention, online daters post personal information and photos for strangers to see while utilizing fewer privacy settings than typically used with social networking sites (O’Neil et al., 2018). Included in the pool of strangers viewing these profiles could be the clinician’s former, current, and potential clients. Due to the nature of how online dating works, therapists may unintentionally disclose information about themselves, which could affect the therapeutic relationship. Disclosures regarding a therapist’s sexual circumstances “are generally not considered suitable” (Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995, p. 503) and yet these forms of disclosure are more likely to be encountered by a client who finds their therapist’s online dating profile (Kolmes, 2013). Knowing details about a therapist’s sex and relationship preferences could negatively impact the therapeutic relationship, damage a relationship built on trust, and compromise the effectiveness of therapy (Tunick et al., 2011).
Unintentional Client Disclosure
When an encounter happens in person, both parties are typically aware of what happened and can bring it up in therapy. Finding information online, however, can often be done anonymously. Seeing a client’s personal ad on a dating site discloses information about the client they may not want their therapist to know. This behavior violates Principle E, as it is not respectful of the client’s right to privacy (American Psychological Association, 2002; Kolmes & Taube, 2014). Gaining new information in this manner could also affect the therapist’s objectivity and perception of their client. If a couple is seeing a therapist for marital problems and the therapist discovers one of the partners has an online dating profile, how does the therapist handle this knowledge? Trying to address this with clients could damage the relationship and trust both parties have established with the therapist.
Protecting the Profession’s Image
The APA Ethics Code was created, in part, to protect the profession’s image (Pipes et al., 2005). Previously, a federal judge “was admonished for posting sexually explicit material on a private web site” because his behavior could “reasonably be seen as having resulted in embarrassment to the institution;” thus creating a precedent for concerns about an individual’s online behavior in their respective fields (Kaslow et al., 2011, p. 106). Learning more about a therapist’s personal life from a dating profile (some of which explicitly assess user’s interest in “hookups,” “discreet encounters,” etc.) has the potential to affect people’s perception of psychology and willingness to seek counseling services. For example, people who see that one psychologist enjoys sadomasochism and have misconceptions or biases about BDSM may start worrying that psychologists derive pleasure from other people’s pain and be reluctant to seek services to share their pain.
Currently, APA does not have any explicit ethical guidelines to help therapists consider the use of online dating services despite how many professionals are already using them. Some guidance seems desired. However, as 75.4% of a sample of 246 mental health professionals and psychology graduate students said APA should “definitely” or “probably” create ethical standards regarding the use of online dating services (O’Neil et al., 2018). Additionally, 69.5% of participants reported discussing the ethics of using social networking sites in graduate school or as part of a continuing education class. Still, only 15% of the same sample reported discussing the ethics of online dating services (O’Neil et al., 2018). To address this gap in the field and encourage supervisors and educators to discuss the ethics of online dating with their trainees, two sets of recommendations were developed: a set of variables to consider when contemplating whether to use online dating services and a set of recommendations for individuals who have decided to proceed with using these services.
What to Consider When Deciding Whether to Use Online Dating
The following variables could affect the likelihood of encountering a former, current, or potential client through an internet-based dating service.
- Geographic location: Do you live in a city or a rural area? Are you planning to use a dating service that uses geographic location to match people and, if so, is the geographic range set to a distance that includes where your clients live?
- Job responsibilities: Are you currently providing therapy services? If not, when did you stop? Do you plan to practice therapy again? Do you teach students or conduct research with participants who may encounter your dating profile?
- Clinical population: Do you work with an inpatient population who cannot access the internet for the duration of time you will be using dating services? Or young children who do not use dating services yet (but their parents might)?
- Presenting concerns: Do you work with clients who struggle with attachment and boundaries? Do your clients ask a lot of personal questions? Do you work with clients presenting with relationship concerns? What assumptions will your clients make about you and your competency in working with them if they encountered your online dating profile?
- Theoretical orientation: How does your theoretical orientation view self-disclosure?
- Preference for a partner: Are you searching for a partner with similar characteristics (e.g., age, sexual orientation) to your clients? Are you searching for a partner with a specific interest, physical trait (e.g., must be a particular ethnicity or height), characteristic (e.g., intelligent), or sexual preference (e.g., must be open to BDSM)? How would clients react, and what would they infer from learning their therapist’s preferences in a partner?
Recommendations for Using Online Dating Services
Clinicians using online dating services are encouraged to be mindful of the effect of unintentional self-disclosures could have on their clients. The following suggestions may help practitioners minimize their unintentional self-disclosures and consider how to address disclosures that do occur:
- Use a social media policy with clients (Kolmes, 2010). Kolmes’s (2010) social media policy is available online for therapists to adapt for their practices. They recommend including a statement that the therapist is on social media, and clients who find anything about the therapist online are welcome to bring it up in therapy (Kolmes, 2013).
- Periodically search yourself to see what comes up (Taylor et al., 2010; Lannin & Scott, 2014). Some clients look up their therapist online (Kolmes & Taube, 2011; Lehavot et al., 2010; Zur, 2008). Practitioners who are aware of their online presence can edit and restrict some of the content clients could find.
- Be cognizant of the reputation associated with different dating services. Some dating services may be more stigmatized than others. For example, SugarDaddy.com may elicit a stronger reaction from clients than using a service like eHarmony (O’Neil, 2019).
- Use sites that enable you to see who has viewed your page/profile. Therapists who know if a client has viewed their page can bring up what happened in therapy. Alternatively, some services (like Bumble) enable users to choose who they match with before the other party can see their content and indicate they are interested. This practice may enable users to avoid matching with former and current clients.
- Utilize privacy settings and review them regularly (Lannin & Scott, 2014; Lehavot et al., 2010). Some services pull information automatically from social media accounts, while others give users more autonomy in choosing what to include in a dating profile.
- Avoid using a professional photo in your dating profile (Kolmes, 2013). If using an online dating site that includes pictures, avoid using photos that are also on a professional website. Clients can take a professional photo of their therapist and conduct a Google image search with it that would result in the client finding any other sites containing the same photo (Kolmes, 2013).
- Engage in thoughtful self-disclosure. Practitioners should be mindful of what information and pictures they include on their dating profile and how it could affect a client or the therapeutic relationship if seen by a client. Seeing sexy or more revealing photos, for example, could impact the relationship more than seeing a face shot (Kolmes, 2013). Consider only posting content that you would feel comfortable with a client knowing.
- Change or modify your name, occupation, and educational background (Kolmes & Taube, 2014; Lannin & Scott, 2014; Leahovt et al., 2010). This adjustment would make it harder for clients to find their therapist’s profile. Kolmes (2013) suggested psychologists who decide to list their profession in their profile may want to include a statement below it; encouraging clients who find the profile to discuss anything they see on it with the therapist.
- Utilize disclosed deception. Instead of listing personal information, consider saying something like, “I would be happy to tell you more about my education and profession when we meet, but I have altered it here for professional reasons.”
- Have a colleague review your profile for potential concerns (Kolmes, 2013; Kolmes & Taube, 2014). A colleague may provide some insight into how a client could interpret the contents.
- Do not accept matches with clients (Kolmes, 2010; Taylor et al., 2010). O’Neil et al. (2018) found 2.4% of mental professionals using online dating services said they matched with a client. To reduce the possibility of multiple roles and blurred boundaries, psychologists should not accept clients as matches or affiliate their online dating profile with a client. If this was unavoidable due to the dating service used, use clinical judgment in processing what happened with the client.
- If you are aware a client viewed your profile, discuss this with them (Taylor et al., 2010). The majority of clients (72%) who found information on their therapist online did not discuss what they saw with their therapist (Kolmes & Taube, 2011).
- Refrain from searching for clients to avoid unintentional client disclosure. Kolmes and Taube (2014) found 2% of psychologists with online dating profiles deliberately searched for a client on an online dating site. The literature on searching for information on clients in non-emergency situations raises concerns about practitioners’ motives in searching for information, how new information affects client trust and therapist objectivity, and the ethics associated with discovering a client is engaging in harmful behavior (Kolmes & Taube, 2014; Lehavot et al., 2010; Tunick et al., 2011). If a counselor happens to find information online about a client accidentally, they should talk to the client about it.
The APA Ethics Code does not explicitly address the behavior of its members with regards to their conduct online, but some of the content typically included in online dating profiles has the potential to negatively impact the therapeutic relationship and the field as a whole. Unintentional therapist and client disclosures risk jeopardizing the relationship and trust that psychologists strive to establish with their clients. Additionally, if a therapist and client’s online dating profiles were linked or “matched” in some way, the additional information about the client could risk the therapist’s objectivity, increase the likelihood of a dual relationship, and possibly result in the client believing in the possibility of a romantic relationship with a therapist. Training programs and supervisors are encouraged to talk to trainees about the possible professional implications of partaking in online dating. In this article, I attempted to provide some recommendations for using online dating services but certainly not all of the recommendations proposed will work for everyone. The purpose of the list of recommendations is not to tell practitioners what to do but to encourage mental health professionals to reflect on how using dating services has the potential to impact clients and to make decisions with these considerations in mind.
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