Social media is both a boon to and a minefield for therapists. Now more than ever, social media is a huge part of the cultural landscape, and as such provides a really enticing place to make a name for yourself and your practice through social media marketing. But is the reward worth the risk? What happens when a client attempts to connect with you on social media? Should you have separate business and personal accounts? Does HIPAA cover social media? Social media is an extremely valuable tool, especially when attempting to grow a practice. There’s a lot of competition for clients, and sometimes word of mouth isn’t enough to fill those empty spaces in your counseling caseload. That being said, social media must always be handled with extreme care by mental health professionals to avoid privacy pitfalls.
Therapists are absolutely allowed to have a social media accounts! In this modern age, it would be more out of place to find a therapist who didn’t use a single form of social media. One of the best and most practical ways to maintain boundaries between professional and personal life is to maintain separate accounts. For personal information, including information that you wouldn’t voluntarily tell a client, a personal social media account should be used. A professional or practice account should include content that is helpful and interesting, such as mental health articles. It’s also a great way for potential clients to learn about your practice. Pseudonyms for private accounts are also a helpful way to create more boundaries between the therapist and any potential client interactions online.
Given the size of the world, and the even more infinite size of the internet, it would seem improbable - even unlikely - that clients and therapists would “bump into each other” online, but the fact is this happens quite frequently. It may be as simple as a client doing a google search of their current or potential therapist. Not only would that practitioner’s website or social media channels come up in search results, but also any potential private social media accounts. If these are not private, or have significant privacy settings in place, the client could potentially see much more than the therapist would have purposefully shared.
Algorithms, too, are a funny thing. We’ve all heard stories or have experienced firsthand the tell-tale signs of the internet “knowing too much,” such as when it suggests we connect with people from our past or add an ingredient we hadn’t known we needed to an online shopping cart. You just never know when you or your practice will show up on a client’s radar on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or any social networking sites. For this reason, it’s critical for therapists to create and abide by a social media policy for their practice.
Having a social media policy that you can provide and discuss during intake is the best way to handle the process. That way, the client understands immediately what the boundaries for you and your practice are online, and that the policy is in place to protect their privacy. There are three main sections that should be included in a therapy practice’s social media policy, although no two practices are run the exact same way, no two social policies are the same either, and they can and should be tailored to your specific situation. Your policy should include an explanation of what platforms you use and how you use them, your contact policies, and your privacy or confidentiality assurance.
How and when do you use your social media accounts? Are they for interacting with colleagues and other therapists? Are you sharing mental health tips and articles? Do you mostly post cute pictures of cats? Whatever your main use, your social media policy should include a list of the social networking sites you use and how you use them. It’s important to point out to clients that you do not expect them to follow or “friend” your professional pages, and that you won’t be personally interacting with them on social media, even if they leave a comment or message. This would indicate a therapeutic relationship and would immediately violate privacy rules. Additionally, you should assure clients you won’t seek out their information online.
Contact policies in regards to social media are important for two reasons: privacy and bad business. Social media chat and messenger platforms aren’t secure enough for any messaging to take place between client and therapist, even if it’s a simple greeting. Clients should be made aware of official contact options, like email or phone numbers, and that you cannot reply to social media messages. Besides the privacy aspect, it’s also just bad business to allow contact through social media. Depending on how many accounts you manage (personal and professional) across multiple platforms, it would be much too easy for messages to slip through and go unanswered. A client who feels like they were forgotten or ignored is not going to be as open or trusting when it comes to their therapeutic journey with you.
Lastly, it’s important to spell out to clients that you will absolutely not share any of their information - even anonymously - in any form on social media. Many clients are already in a sensitive and vulnerable state, and it can take time to build a trusting relationship. Making sure they know their information is safe and secure with you is task number 1 in to productive therapy.
There isn’t an explicit rule against accepting a friend request or responding to a “follow” on social media, but the APA, among others, generally discourages practitioners from creating online relationships with people that are outside of their clinical relationship. Doing so would impact the ability of a therapist to protect confidentiality of the client/therapist relationship. Because of this, most social media policy guidelines explicitly state that therapists won’t respond to messages on social media beyond a request to use one of the official communication methods, and then providing an email or phone number for that purpose. When it comes to communicating on business profiles or accounts, the most acceptable response to a comment or like, or similar action is no response. Again, this boils down to protecting client confidentiality. If you respond to a comment, it could potentially expose the person as a client of yours, which is a direct privacy violation.
The other area of social media where contact is most likely to take place is on review sites, such as Yelp, Angie’s List, and Google Reviews, to name a few. The ACA Code of Ethics specifically prohibits counselors and therapists from soliciting reviews and testimonials from clients. The code also mentions that therapists should include language in their social media policy about the positive and negative benefits of leaving reviews on these types of sites. It might be tempting to respond to a review, particularly negative reviews, but it is important that therapists refrain from doing so. These sites are extremely public forums by design, and there is no way to respond while protecting patient confidentiality.
People are definitely more apt to overshare on social media than they would in person - this isn’t revelatory in any way. There is a potential benefit for therapists, especially when having a difficult time getting information out of a client, or trying to understand their current situation. The challenge for therapists is how and when to use this information, and at what point that use crosses a line.
One of the easiest ways to address this issue is to get client permission to view their social media accounts if you think the information gained will be beneficial to the therapeutic journey in some way. Informed consent is the best way to protect yourself and the privacy of your client. This identifies how you’re going to use the information you find, where you will document it, and assures them the information will stay with their confidential files. Beyond the informed consent of the patient, it is generally recommended that therapists create some sort of self-check for when the topic of client social media arises. Asking yourself questions like “Why do I need this information?” and “How would my client feel about me knowing this?” are great places to start with introspection.
Social media can be a minefield for all of us at the best of times. Emotion and intent are not necessarily transmitted over a quick comment or caption, and oversharing is a major privacy concern for a large sector of the population. For therapists, the challenge is even more at the forefront. The ability to have and enjoy personal social media accounts must be weighed against one’s own desire for privacy. Becoming familiar with and utilizing privacy settings are helpful, as is using a pseudonym. With skill and monitoring, most mental health professionals are able to maintain their own accounts without giving too much away.
When it comes to professional or practice accounts, the challenge is a little more nuanced, because these pages, by definition, are open to the public. This gives former and current clients the ability to comment, like, and follow. By adopting and following a social media policy, therapists and clients can draw a distinct line between the online relationship and the therapeutic relationship, which will assist in protecting the confidentiality and privacy of everyone involved.
If your practice is looking for additional therapy resources, Advekit can help so that you can keep the focus on your client. If you’re curious about different types of therapy niches, the numerous pet therapy benefits for your client, how to talk to a suicidal client, how to efficiently run an online therapy practice, and more, make sure to check out our resource center.