Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ofer Zur, Ph.D. - The Google Factor: Therapists' Unwitting Self-Disclosures On The Net

I recently posted an article by Thomas G. Gutheil, MD - Ethical Aspects of Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy - about the challenges of knowing how much to self-disclose as a therapist. In response to that post, Ofer Zur, Ph.D. left a comment suggesting that social networking in particular and the internet in general also constitutes a form of self-disclosure that therapists need to be aware of in their work.

Here is his article on that topic.
The Google Factor

Therapists' Unwitting Self-Disclosures On The Net

What can clients find out about their psychotherapists
and counselors with a click of the mouse?

What can psychotherapists and counselors do about
negative information posted online about them?

Google Factor

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Independent Practitioner, V. 28/2, pp 83-85, 2008. For printable-pdf format, see reprint at: Zur, O. (2008). The Google Factor: Therapists' Unwitting Self-Disclosure On The Net. New Therapist, 57, September/October, p. 16-22.

Short paper on Therapists' Web Transparency - How to Respond to Clients' Facebook Friend Request - Online course on Self-Disclosure for CE credits

Table of Contents:

Five Types of Self-Disclosure

  1. Deliberate self-disclosure
  2. Non-Deliberate self-disclosure
  3. Accidental self-disclosure
  4. Inappropriate or counter clinical self-disclosure
  5. Self-disclosures that are initiated by clients' deliberate actions
Free Speech and The Right To Privacy (or lack thereof) On The Internet
  1. Public Records
  2. The Right to Free Speech
  3. The Right to Privacy
  4. The Right to Privacy vs. Freedom of Speech
Ways that Clients May Find Online Information About Their Therapists
  1. Reviewing therapists' professional web sites and online resumes
  2. Conducting a simple Google [Internet] search
  3. Joining social networks or reading therapists' or others blogs
  4. Paying for specialized online background checks
  5. Reading therapists' postings on professional listservs and in chatrooms
On Clients' Curiosity, Due Diligence, Intrusion and Cyber-Stalking
  • Level 1 – Curiosity
  • Level 2 - Due diligence or thorough search:
  • Level 3 - Intrusive search
  • Level 4 - Illegal search or Cyber-stalking

General Guidelines Regarding Internet Transparencies

What Psychotherapists Can Do To Delete Negative or False Information From the Web

  • Identify the nature Of The information
  • Figure out The source
  • Try to resolve it amicably
  • Whom to contact
  • Where to turn for help


Psychotherapists are accustomed to viewing self-disclosure as something personal they intentionally and verbally reveal to their clients, often not realizing that self-disclosure encompasses a vast deal more. Therapists' self-disclosure can be deliberate, unintentional, or accidental, it can be verbal or non-verbal and, most relevant to this paper, it can be available to the client without the therapist's knowledge (Scarton, 2010; Zur, 2010) or approval. In the Internet era, the concept of disclosure of information about therapists has become even broader and more complex. Search engines, such as Google, and specialized for-fee background checks, have completely changed the way clients can obtain information about their therapists, what kinds of information are available to clients with the click of a mouse and, correspondingly, what therapists may inadvertently disclose online.

The  issue of privacy is one of the       biggest challenges posed by the       Internet. New Internet Technologies       have presented a very complicated       and complex legal, ethical and moral       tension between the right to privacy       versus the First Amendment       constitutional right to free speech.At its most basic, a therapist's self-disclosure may be defined as the revelation to the client of personal rather than professional information (Farber, 2006; Zur, 2007). Generally, when therapist disclosure goes beyond the standard professional disclosure of name, credentials, office address, fees, emergency contacts, cancellation policies, etc., it is considered self-disclosure (Stricker & Fisher, 1990). This paper discusses the various kinds of self-disclosure mentioned above, i.e., intentional and unintentional, witting and unwitting. All can be gathered under the umbrella of "therapist self-disclosure", as all disclose information about the "self" of the therapist regardless of how the information came to light. Similar to the issue of what one may call "forced transparency" – for instance, self-disclosure in small communities where therapists' lives are unavoidably quite transparent (Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997, Zur, 2006) - self-disclosure on the Internet creates an equivalent transparency. The only difference is the size of the "actual village" in comparison to the "global village."

Five Types of Self-Disclosure

There are five different types of self-disclosure: deliberate, unavoidable, accidental, inappropriate and client-initiated. Following are brief descriptions of these types, followed by a more detailed description of the last category, i.e. clients' search for information about their therapists.

1. Deliberate self-disclosure: Self-disclosure is often refers to therapists' intentional disclosure of personal information. This might be verbal and also could be other deliberate actions, such placing a certain family photo in the office, the choice of office d├ęcor or an empathic gesture, such as a touch or a sigh (Barnett, 1988; Farber, 2006; Zur, 2007). There are two types of deliberate self-disclosure. The first one is self-revealing, which is the disclosure of information by therapists about themselves. The second type has been called self-involving, which has to do with therapists' personal reactions to clients and to occurrences that take place during sessions (Knox, et al., 1997). Appropriate and clinically driven self-disclosures are carried out for the clinical benefit of the clients. Humanistic (Jourard, 1971), feminist (Greenspan, 1985) cognitive and group therapists, and those who work with children and minorities have generally embraced self-disclosure more readily than psychoanalytically oriented therapists (Williams, 1997).

2. Non-Deliberate self-disclosure: This form of self-disclosure includes a wide range of possibilities, such as a therapist's gender, age and distinctive physical attributes, such as pregnancy, visible tattoos, obesity, some forms of disability, etc. (Stricker & Fisher, 1990). Therapists reveal themselves also by their manner of dress, hairstyle, use of make-up, jewelry, perfume or aftershave, facial hair, wedding rings, or the wearing of a cross, Star of David or any other symbol (Barnett, 1998). Non-verbal cues or body language (e.g., a raised eyebrow, a frown) are also sources of self-disclosure that are not always under the therapist's full control. A therapist's announcement of an upcoming vacation, or other time to be spent away from the office, also constitutes unavoidable self-disclosure. Clients' search for information about       their therapists may vary between       normal curiosity and criminal      stalking.The home office setup, when the therapy office is located at the therapist's home, always involves extensive self disclosures, such as economic status, information about the family and pets, sometimes information about hobbies, habits and much more. Therapists who practice in small or rural communities, on remote military bases or aircraft carriers, or those who work in intimate and interconnected spiritual, ethnic, underprivileged, disabled or college communities, must all contend with extensive self-disclosure and significant transparency of their personal lives simply because many aspects are often displayed in clear view of their clients by virtue of the setting. In many of these small community situations, a therapist's marital status, family details, religion or political affiliation, sexual orientation and other personal information may be readily available to clients (Farber, 2006; Zur, 2006).

3. Accidental self-disclosure: This form of self-disclosure occurs when there are spontaneous verbal or non-verbal reactions, incidental or unplanned encounters outside the office, or other planned and unplanned occurrences that happen to reveal therapists' personal information to their clients (Knox, Hess, Petersen, & Hill, 1997; Stricker & Fisher, 1990, Zur, 2007). This may include a therapist's unplanned strong, emotional, negative response to a client's announcement of a decision to get married, quit a job, etc. or it might be when a client unexpectedly witnesses the therapist's interaction with his/her family in a public place.

4. Inappropriate or counter clinical self-disclosure: These forms of self-disclosure include self-disclosures that are done for the benefit of the therapist, burdens the client with unnecessary information about the therapist or creates a role reversal where a client, inappropriately, takes care of the therapist (Knox, et al, 1997; Stricker & Fisher, 1990; Zur, 2006). One the most cited examples is when therapists inappropriately discuss their own sexual feelings or fantasies. Other examples are when therapists selfishly discuss their own hardships with their clients without any clinical rationale. Such inappropriate self-disclosures are often counter-clinical and unethical.

5. Self-disclosures that are initiated by clients' deliberate actions: This type of disclosure is the focus of this article. A therapist, in this case, may intentionally or unintentionally and wittingly or unwittingly reveal information about him or herself to clients who are conducting 'online-searches' for the specific purpose of gathering information about the therapist. Such searches can reveal a wide range of professional and personal information, such as family history, criminal records, family tree, volunteer activity, community and recreational involvement, political affiliations and much more. In the past, curious, obsessed or intrusive clients were known to have inquired about their therapists in the community; to have searched for and found their therapist's home address, marital status and similar details or to have criminally stalked their therapists (Barnett, 1998). However, the meaning of curiosity and stalking has radically altered since the introduction of Internet search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Alta Vista, etc., as well as thousands of for-fee services that are able to find out almost anything a client might desire to know about their therapist (Zur, 2007). As the rest of the paper elaborates, the result of new web technologies is that therapists do not always have control over or knowledge of what is posted online about them, and consequently neither control over nor knowledge of what clients may find out or know about them.

Free Speech and The Right To Privacy (or lack thereof) On The Internet:

The issue of privacy is one of the biggest challenges posed by the Internet. New Internet Technologies have presented a very complicated and complex legal, ethical and moral tension between the right to privacy versus the First Amendment constitutional right to free speech. In  the words of the web expert Dr. Rosen, 'Consider anything you write  online as being tattooed on your   forehead.'This question of privacy vs. free speech is currently being debated throughout the country among lay people, professionals, politicians, attorneys and courts. Some of the focus of the debate has been around concern with online data vendors such as,, and These are companies that search public record databases, gather all sorts of information and, often for a fee, provide the information on the Internet.

In discussing these complexities there are several issues that need to be defined and attended to: The notion of Public Records. The First Amendment and the Right to Free Speech and the Right to Privacy. Following are short discussions of these issues . . .
Read more.

No comments: