“When psychiatrists are on Facebook, their patients can get a case of TMI”


Washington Post columnist Steven Petrow gets a friend recommendation from Facebook, and it turns out to be his current psychotherapist, who isn’t using any privacy settings. Petrow starts snooping into his therapist’s life as well as into guidelines for mental health professionals using social media, and is surprised by what he learns.

“For starters, there are 12 photos of [my psychologist] available for all the world to enjoy, several of them shirtless and one that had a ‘friend’ of his posting ‘Woof!’ underneath it,” writes Petrow. “I also discovered pictures of Dr. E from high school with two nice-looking young ladies. Although I’ve known he was gay, I started to wonder: Was he bisexual then? When did he come out?”

Petrow wonders if anyone else suspects learning such things could be counter-productive for the therapist-patient relationship, and discovers that one Florida study found that only a third of medical students and residents use any privacy settings on social media. “While no firm social media guidelines have been adopted by the various mental health professional organizations, the American Psychological Association has published a manifesto of sorts on the topic,” says Petro. “In The Internet’s Ethical Challenges,’ Stephen Behnke, director of the APA’s Ethics Office, wrote that ‘psychologists have special ethical issues they need to think through to determine how this technology is going to affect their work.’”

When psychiatrists are on Facebook, their patients can get a case of TMI (The Washington Post, August 25, 2014)


  1. I think the privacy settings for folks in these kinds of professions are called “common sense”. If a clinical person does not understand how to regulate privacy settings, they can always ask a teenager. Really, there is no excuse.

    Going along with this, we now have PTG (patient targeted googling), in which the therapist attempts to learn information about patients online. Lots of ethical questions around this one. I’m not sure why. It is obvious to me: just don’t.

    Are we so regulated and so ethically coded that a little common sense and a little restraint never cross anyone’s mind anymore? Ah, the good old days, before the internet, when I walked three miles to school, uphill both ways, and had to actually gossip to find private information about others.

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    • It should be common sense, similarly for law enforcement and many other professions. The problem is that facebook’s terrible for privacy settings (they sometimes change them out of the blue and unless you read though all their announcements, if they even make any, you only realise it when weird people start commenting on your pics or sth). The safest way is not to use social media at all…

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    • As baseball announcer Tim McCarver once said, “I don’t know why they call it ‘common sense.’ They should call it ‘uncommon sense,’ because if it were so common, more people would have it!”

      All the more true in the mental health field than other places, apparently.

      —- Steve

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  2. I think it’s also worth googling your psychiatrist or therapist to see what they are saying online. A lot of them blog about their patients unabashedly on sites like Psychology Today, and a lot of their posts are mortifying breaches of confidentiality. One of the gravest examples I ever saw was the doctor who blogged about how his patient came into his care because he was haunted by the memory of how his aunt had sexually humiliated him in front of his entire complicit family when he was a child. Names were not given, but specific details were. Imagine reading a blog like that about yourself, by your deeply trusted doctor, on Psychology Today. I would absolutely die.

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