An Introduction to Media Psychology for Bloggers and Tweeters

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

Media psychology

To begin with, let’s be clear that media psychology has some competing definitions.

A new generation of media psychologists is fighting to make clear distinctions between the traditional view of media psychologists: clinical psychologists who appear in the media (for example, on talk shows and reality TV) and those who actually specialize in both media technologies and psychological theory who are studying the uses, experiences, and impact of media on our lives.

This post focuses on the former understanding of media psychology, and not the latter. It is geared towards clinicians who are venturing into social media with the intention of interacting with online audiences.

Many psychotherapists don’t consider a social media presence to be similar to having a television or radio show with thousands of audience members. In fact, most of us start out blogging and tweeting to an audience of zero, never sure how many readers will eventually see our sites. Fewer of us have received any training in media psychology.

However, if you’re a psychotherapist using social media to promote your practice or provide mental health related information, don’t fool yourself: you are acting as a media professional. Social media has become one of the fastest ways to reach an audience, and it often leads to other opportunities to educate and connect with the general public (e.g., interviews, public speaking, and writing articles). It’s important to recognize that your media presence can quickly expand in ways you may have never anticipated.

If you’d like to use your blog or Twitter to broadcast health information, it’s smart to do some research and learn about the ethical responsibilities and potential conflicts that can arise when acting as a media professional. This post will introduce you to some things you should consider when creating a social media presence.

What is your role with your subscribers, readers, and followers?

Who is your audience and how do you plan to interact with them? Are they potential clients? Are they other mental health professionals? Are you educating people about mental health in general, or about your specific areas of focus? Are you trying to give an impression of how you work to market your services? Perhaps you simply want to pose questions to an audience of other clinicians about areas of research, best practices, or challenging aspects of clinical care?

Establishing a professional relationship

If your goal is to encourage potential clients to contact you, you need to take care in how you respond to those making public clinical contact with you. It is easy to violate confidentiality and create an archived record of such a violation when responding to someone asking about becoming your client.

Here is an example: as more people follow me on Twitter, I sometimes scan my @reply list of messages and see replies from people asking about whether they can schedule a session. Others will post public messages and ask how I might diagnose their symptoms. Obviously, we cannot begin a clinical relationship in public and DM-ing (direct messaging) a potential client on Twitter is unwise since it is a non-secure site. Lastly, of course, we may not want to appear rude by ignoring the request entirely.

But it’s not always practical to respond to every query, and certainly not in public.

My best solution has been to Tweet a general reminder now and then that I cannot respond on Twitter to any requests to engage my services and that the best way for people to contact me if they are interested in becoming clients is to directly phone my office and schedule a phone interview.

Some of the legal issues involved in managing potential clients on blogs or other websites are addressed by Recupero (2006). She points out that advice-giving over the phone may be enough to establish a doctor-patient relationship and that responding to email may also create a legal duty. Therapists who enable and respond to comments on blogs, or who reply to postings on Twitter should be mindful as to the potential for such responses to be read as prescriptive or advice-giving. Give thought to whether you wish to engage this level of clinical contact, along with the legal and ethical responsibilities that follow.

Also be aware that other risks arise when current patients use such forums to interact with you. These interactions may become a part of the patient’s legal chart. One way I address this is by outlining in my Social Media Policy that current clients should not use social media sites to interact with me, and that they should use the phone instead.

Responding to Interview and Guest Writing Requests

Getting your point across

Sometimes, someone who has read your blog or seen your Twitterstream may contact you to request your participation in an interview. You may be comfortable with print media but not radio or televised appearances. Anyone considering doing live, taped media appearances should should strongly consider obtaining consultation on managing media appearances. For any interview, request an advance list of the types of questions they plan to ask. This will help you prepare and collect your thoughts. Then make your own list of main points you want to be sure to address. This can help prevent the painful experience of later finding your well-intentioned thoughts misquoted or feeling that you missed an opportunity to get your message across.

Some people do email interviews which can give you the chance to be careful and thorough and edit your responses. But most print interviews still happen over the phone. Be attentive about not being led astray or talking about off-limit issues whether they be about your incomplete data findings or specific clinical examples that could reveal more than you intend. Many interviewers are sensitive and respectful to those in our profession, but some people may be persistent about digging for a story and you need to have good boundaries in such scenarios. This can be challenging to a media newcomer.

Some interviewers will provide you with a draft or your comments to review pre-publication and this is a good time to clarify if you feel you’ve misspoken. But many media sites will not grant you this opportunity, so you’ll want your first shot to be fairly focused.

Maintaining confidentiality and obtaining informed consent

Be extremely thoughtful when you are asked to share clinical examples. Some people may invite you to chat or write stories about your experiences with your clients. Prepare in advance for how you plan to respond. Consider what it will be like for any of your clients to read the story or interview later.

If you are invited to speak or to give a training to a group of professionals, be advised that many such lectures now get recorded, webcast, and tweeted. This means that you are no longer simply presenting to the group of people who is in the room with you, but your presentation may reach many people who you cannot see, and people may access it later.

Some clinicians believe that if you obtain a client’s consent, if you mask the identifying details, or if you show a draft of the writing to the client and let him approve it, it is permissible to share such clinical material with the media in certain contexts. Other clinicians are highly protective of what happens in-session. These clinicians believe that even asking for client consent or participation in the creation of such documents is intrusive and contaminating of the therapy process. It certainly could be perceived by some clients that your own media pursuits or desire for success are eclipsing your commitment to their clinical care. It pays to be prudent and to weigh clinical considerations before thinking about potential benefits to others or to your visibility.

If you do plan to regularly blog, tweet, or speak to news sources about any of your casework, you should first obtain informed consent from your clients. Clients need to be made aware that this is something you do and they should understand what your procedures are to ensure their privacy and confidentiality. You do not want your clients to be surprised to find any details of their work with you that you have been posting without their knowledge and consent, even if you are masking identifying information.

Providing commentary on public figures or news items

One opportunity media psychologists have is to educate the public about the ethics and responsibilities of our profession. Those of us providing outreach to the general public are frequently asked to comment on news items or public figures. I’ve had followers on Twitter ask for my professional opinion on celebrity behavior. Rather than ignoring these queries, I use such requests as chances to explain that I cannot ethically offer diagnostic impressions about people I have not assessed or treated. Further, I explain that when someone does utilize my services, their treatment stays confidential.

Responses of this nature can provide an important counter-example to many of the pop-psychology figures in the media. The public may get the impression that clinicians are delighted to offer diagnostic assessments of people they’ve never evaluated. We have to take care not to comment on such things and this can be a teaching moment for the public, about what we do and our ethical standards.

That said, we can, of course, offer general psychoeducational information to others, and there are often ways to reframe our responses to these questions so that we can provide helpful information to others.

Other issues related to client rights and dignity

Whose status update is this anyway?

Some people may believe that even on locked accounts, it is safe to blog or Tweet about cases.

Remember that friend networks are not consultation groups. Even without names, sex, or ages in a post, if you mention the presenting issue or even when the client has met with you, this can be enough detail to identify your client to others. It can feel particularly compelling to post status updates about challenging cases, crises and traumas, clinical successes, or strong countertransference feelings. Remember that you do not want people checking your feeds for mention of themselves, their acquaintances, or out of voyeuristic curiosity. While it may feel like you are simply sharing aspects of your life, remember that this is confidential clinical care and HIPAA violations are ethical breaches subject to up to $250,000 in fines or imprisonment.

This issue has gotten more press recently as there have been several publicized cases of HIPAA violations on social networking sites. In October, 2009, New England Baptist Hospital banned employees from using social networking sites due to concerns that hospital workers were sharing too much about patient care. In June, 2010, a San Diego county hospital fired five nurses for discussing patient information on Facebook.

This is a major emerging professional challenge as social networking increases and sites continue to encourage frequent sharing of daily activities. At the same time, providers continue to have vague notions about the reach of their postings and whether they are sharing aspects of their own day or their client’s day.

Conclusion

This article covered a basic introduction to some of the issues that can come up for clinicians venturing into social media. Having a social media presence can be a highly rewarding experience, but it does require thought and care. For more comprehensive information about media psychology, I recommend perusing the references below. Of special note is the McGarrah, et al, piece: In the public eye: The ethical practice of media psychology [pdf] which provides more in-depth information and is essential reading for anyone venturing into media psychology.

References

Behnke, S. (2008, April).  Reflections on media ethics for psychologists. Monitor on Psychology, 46-47.

McConville, C. Hospital cuts off use of Facebook. Retrieved June 12, 2010 from http://news.bostonherald.com/business/healthcare/view.bg?articleid=1204514

McGarrah, N., Alvord, M., Martin, J., & Haldeman, D. (2009).  In the public eye: The ethical practice of media psychology.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40, 172-180.

Recupero, P. R., Legal Concerns for Psychiatrists Who Maintain Websites. Psychiatric Services, April, 2006, Vol. 57. No. 4, 450-425.

Recupero P.R., E-mail and the psychiatrist-patient relationship. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33:465–475, 2005 Retrieved June 15, 2010 from http://www.jaapl.org/cgi/content/full/33/4/465

Rutledge, P. What is media psychology? Retrieved, June 28, 2010 from http://mprcenter.org/?page_id=16

Stickney, R., Hospital will fire workers in Facebook scandal. Retrieved June 12, 2010 from http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/health/Hospital-Fires-Emps-in-Facebook-Scandal-95794764.html

Wynn, P. (2010, January/February). Brave New World of Social Media: Social networking is transforming the way medical students communicate with one another, but is online content meeting professional standards? The New Physician. Retrieved June 12, 2010 from http://www.amsa.org/AMSA/Homepage/Publications/TheNewPhysician/2010/0110SocialMedia.aspx

© 2010 Keely Kolmes, Psy.D.

To cite this page: Kolmes, K. (2010) An introduction to media psychology for bloggers and tweeters. Retrieved month/day/year from http://drkkolmes.com/2010/06/28/an-introduction-to-media-psychology-for-bloggers-and-tweeters.

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