Should Mental Health Professionals Block Clients On Facebook?

This article is part of an online course: Digital and Social Media Ethics for Psychotherapists for 8 CE credits

The past two days, a subsection of the Internet was ablaze with commentary related to the Facebook privacy changes that I blogged about yesterday. Some users didn’t mind the changes. Some didn’t realize they had lost privacy options. But those who were upset were, like me, extremely upset.

One post by Heidi N. Moore, Facebook to Privacy: Drop Dead, accurately referred to it as a “bait and switch,” and addressed why reporters may wish to keep their friend lists private. Joseph Bonneau, a security researcher, wrote Facebook Tosses Graph Privacy Into the Bin, about why friend lists should be regarded as sensitive data. And then there is Kevin Bankston of EFF’s post Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Since the initial changes were made, Facebook has added back the ability to hide your friend list from other users. Nevertheless, in some of my exchanges with other mental health professionals, the option of blocking users has come up more than once as a means of ensuring greater privacy. Before last night, I had never tried using the Block feature on Facebook, as the original privacy settings had met my needs well. I experimented with it yesterday and it does seem to be a useful way to restrict access to one’s profile and I can see some benefits to using it in certain situations.

That said, I have some strong objections to relying upon the Block feature as a means of restricting access to profiles, particularly when health care providers use it to Block patients.

Does it work?

My first concern is technical: blocking particular email addresses assumes that you know which email address a person is using to access their Facebook profile. Many users link multiple email addresses to their Facebook accounts, so blocking the email address you know does not completely ensure that someone doesn’t have access to you. It also doesn’t address users who have used one email address to contact you but have their mail forwarded to another address. These users may still be able to view your profile when using an email address with which you are not familiar.

More privacy infringement

My second issue is related to overall privacy violations: forcing users to choose the Block feature as the only way to restrict others’ access to their profile is simply another means of collecting data. Typing names into a Block list is one more infringement on personal privacy. When we do this, we are providing specific information to Facebook about people and saying something about our connections to them. This is much more information than I care to provide to Facebook when there is a much easier way to restrict access that does not entail my providing the company with information about my specific relationships.

Our own commitment to client privacy

Just as we expect Facebook to honor our privacy, our clients expect us to do the same. As an issue of professional ethics, it seems to me to be a violation of patient privacy to enter client names and/or email addresses into Facebook unless that is specifically indicated in our treatment contracts.

My current treatment agreement states that I keep patient information private and do not share it with others unless there is reason to believe that the patient or another individual is at risk. My policy does not indicate that I may also share client information with Facebook. It is easy to forget that when we type names into a search engine or a field on a social network, we are also sharing information with others. Doing so without, at the very least, informing our clients seems to be a breach of trust.

However, if Facebook continues to make it impossible for us to restrict profiles to users of our choosing, those of us who wish to continue using the social network in our private lives may find Block to be a useful feature. If I ever decide to employ it on my own Facebook profile, I will include a statement about this in my Social Media Policy, so that clients are aware that I do this and why. Clinicians who are already Blocking clients may wish to consider explaining that they do it not only to prevent clients from stumbling onto their interactions with others, but also to prevent therapists themselves from seeing their clients’ personal interactions with shared friends if they should have overlapping social circles.

That said, I’d greatly prefer that Facebook just do the right thing and allow their users to have back the greater control over profile privacy that they enjoyed up until just a few days ago.

References

Bankston, K. (2009, December 9) Facebook’s New Privacy Changes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Retrieved December 11, 2009 from http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/12/facebooks-new-privacy-changes-good-bad-and-ugly

Bonneau, J. (2009, December 11) Facebook tosses graph privacy into the bin. Retrieved December 11, 2009 from http://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2009/12/11/facebook-tosses-graph-privacy-into-the-bin/

Kolmes, K. (2009, December 10) How Facebook is Getting it Wrong: New Privacy Settings Offer Less Privacy. Retrieved December 11, 2009 from http://drkkolmes.com/2009/12/10/how-facebook-is-getting-it-wrong-new-privacy-settings-offer-less-privacy/

Kolmes, K. (2010, February 1) Private Practice Social Media Policy. Retrieved April 26 2010) from http://www.drkkolmes.com/docs/socmed.pdf

Moore, H. (2009, December 10) Facebook to Privacy: Drop Dead. Retrieved December 10, 2009 from http://www.thebigmoney.com/blogs/sausage/2009/12/10/facebook-privacy-drop-dead

Muller, A.Y. (2009, December 9) Updates on Your New Privacy Tools. Retrieved December 11, 2009 from http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=197943902130

© 2009 Keely Kolmes, Psy.D.

To cite this page: Kolmes, K. (2009) Should mental health professionals block clients on Facebook? Retrieved month/day/year from http://drkkolmes.com/2009/12/11/should-mental-health-professionals-block-clients-on-facebook/.


One Response to “Should Mental Health Professionals Block Clients On Facebook?”

  1. Managing Facebook as a Mental Health Professional | Dr. Keely Kolmes

    […] Some therapists are managing these challenges by employing the most restrictive privacy settings so that very little of their profile is visible to those who are not their friends. Others are using different names than the ones they practice under to distinguish their personal, social Facebook profile from their professional identity. Others have responded by entering client names into Facebook’s “Block” feature, in an effort to prevent clients from stumbling onto their profiles. For more on this, please see my article, “Should Mental Health Professionals Block Clients on Facebook?” […]

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