Social media, Googling, Tumblr and ETHICS

Carol Falender, Ph.D. and Mudita Bahadur, Ph.D.


You realize you have “Linked-in” with a current client.


You are tempted to Google a client to see if she is telling you the truth in sessions.


Your client tells you he accessed a sexually provocative picture of you on your Facebook page. 


You learn from a colleague that someone has posted a picture of you on their Tumblr dashboard from a New Year’s Eve party, and you are looking slightly inebriated.


How do you apply the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (APA, 2010) to these various situations and others that are coming up every day?  Does the ethics code provide adequate guidance in this new, internet era?  The consensus is yes.  First of all is the responsibility to ensure that the same ethical practices, standards, and professionalism are the guiding factors in all clinical practice, including internet activity.  Second, is the understanding that the differentiation between one’s private and professional lives is diminishing. 


Consider the specific ethical standards applicable to the above scenarios. First, always be mindful of the ethical principles A through E that guide our practice:  Beneficence and Nonmaleficence—duty to do no harm; Fidelity and Responsibility—relationships of trust;  Integrity - accuracy, honesty, truthfulness;  Justice – fairness; and Respect for Peoples Rights and Dignity (which is the first principle in many international codes)—respecting the dignity and the privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination of all people.   Several of the above scenarios involve multiple relationships (3.05) in which “a psychologist refrains from entering a relationship if that relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions… or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists “(3.05(a)).  Further the code (3.05(b)) states that “if a psychologist finds that, due to unforeseen factors, a potentially harmful multiple relationship has arisen, the psychologist takes reasonable steps to resolve it with due regard for the best interests of the affected person and maximal compliance with the Ethics Code. “  (APA, 2010)


Therefore, ethical approaches to the situations include both proactive and responsive efforts.  Proactively, psychologists need to ensure their security settings are updated frequently if they have a personal Facebook or other social networking site and be thoughtful about what is posted.  Also, care is indicated in friending or “linking-in” ensuring knowing who is being friended.  Socially, friends could be encouraged not to post pictures without consent as it is an aspect of professionalism as a psychologist.  And if considering googling a client, it would be useful to engage in ethical decision-making to ascertain one’s motivation and rationale.   Consider informing the client or collaboratively googling in session.  —Proactively consider the motivation to google a client, and whether the information that may be uncovered invokes legal response (such as duty to warn or protect), or changes the relationship with the client from having learned the new information. 


Responsive efforts would include introducing the issue to the client or colleague and engaging in problem solving to ensure compliance with 3.05(b) – “reasonable steps to resolve it with due regard for the best interest of the affected person. “  Furthermore, consider removing the questionable photos from a personal social media page and use the opportunity to model humility by discussing the issue in a respectful and honest way with the client. 


The LACPA Ethics Committee members are available for a brief, free consultation regarding ethical issues.  For more information, please contact the LACPA office at (818)-905-0410.


References available upon request from the LACPA office,  [email protected]