Social Media & Ethics: Psychologists self-reflect when engaging through technology

By John Gavazzi, Psy.D.
March 9, 2016

linkedinMany times, psychologists experience fear, dread and anxiety when the concept of ethics is introduced. Simultaneously, many psychologists use social media for both professional and personal reasons. Since social media comes in various forms, psychologists may think they are not sufficiently learned or practiced in social media, which may add to feelings of apprehension.

Finally, social media is expanding quickly, so practicing psychologists may feel overwhelmed with the diversity of options. The purpose of this article is to help psychologists engage in meaningful reflection prior to engaging in social media. Thoughtful contemplation may prevent ethical breaches when engaging with social media.

Social media is how we share information in the virtual universe. Social media is how we present ourselves to the public online via technology. The most frequent ways psychologists likely interact with the virtual universe is through social networking, professional networking, media sharing and blogging. Hopefully, the reader is aware of some of these forms of social media.

Before engaging in any forms of social media, the psychologist may want to self-reflect on a few topics.

  • What is the purpose for using the particular social media platform? Am I doing it for personal or professional reasons? Am I able to maintain boundaries between my professional life and personal life with this social media tool?
  • What am I trying to communicate about myself or my practice?
  • What are the pros and cons of using this brand of social media?
  • How competent and comfortable am I with this social media platform?
  • Is this meant to grow my practice, my career or my reputation?

Contemplating these questions will likely help you make a decision about whether or not to use a form of social media.

To highlight the importance of self-reflection, a simple, almost innocuous example of social media is LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional networking social media site in which a psychologist connects with other professionals. A psychologist can list relevant education, experience, training and specialization. LinkedIn permits adding awards, media files such as PowerPoint presentations and contact information.

The intent of LinkedIn is to allow professionals to showcase areas of expertise in order to attract business, obtain clients or network with other professionals with similar interests. Within this mode of social media, LinkedIn wants the psychologist to connect with as many individuals as possible in order to grow that professional network. While the psychologist controls connections with LinkedIn, others have access to certain portions of a user’s profile.

I have a LinkedIn account. I have received a few referrals for both psychotherapy and legal cases, based on what people saw on my LinkedIn profile. This is not a recommendation that every psychologist needs to be on LinkedIn, for reasons stated below.

With very little research, anyone can discover that LinkedIn boasts over 400 million registered users from over 200 countries. This quick statistic leads to the simple conclusion that many current or former psychotherapy patients have access to your LinkedIn profile and may want to connect with you. If this is the case, how would you respond to a current patient’s request to become a LinkedIn connection? What about a former patient? If practicing independently, are you willing to use a social media policy statement for your practice related to the use of LinkedIn or any social media?

A second complicating factor is LinkedIn queries if you want to be connected to others based on your LinkedIn connections. On my LinkedIn account, I frequently see that a few of my patients are “seconds” or “thirds” in my social network. Do you feel comfortable knowing that one of your patients is your wife’s co-worker’s spouse? LinkedIn quickly demonstrates just how small the world is (or, conversely, how large your social network really is).

Next, LinkedIn automatically asks if you want to connect with others you know. This “ask” is based on email addresses from your email account. I typically email patients initial forms and confirm appointments. So, I have a large number of patient email addresses easily accessed by LinkedIn. A psychologist disclosed that he accidently gave permission to LinkedIn to send out invitations to all contacts in his email account, including current and former patients. The psychologist shutdown the LinkedIn account quickly once he started receiving phone calls and emails from current and former patients.

The goal of the article was to demonstrate the importance of self-reflection prior to engaging in social media. There are thousands of psychologists around the world using social media for various purposes. Social media are a means of connecting with many people with similar interests. Full disclosure: I have social media accounts with LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogger, Tumblr and have hosted over 20 podcasts.

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John Gavazzi, Psy.D., is a board certified clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa. He operates a part-time private practice and consults with the Bureau of Disability Determination and the State Board of Psychology. He also maintains a blog on ethics at His email address is:

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