Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Technology in counseling: Keeping your marbles in the game

Michelle D. Stone August 16, 2013

cloudwebRecently, I was part of a lively discussion regarding the use of technology in the field of counseling. As strikingly diverse opinions were exchanged, I was saddened to hear the closing statement of one practicing professional counselor. Walking away from the discussion and shaking her head, she stated that if the field was moving toward the use of technology in the counseling relationship through means such as email, video and virtual worlds, then she would leave the profession and move on to find another career.

Although I respect her right to choose her own path, I thought it tragic that a bright, competent counselor with generally well-considered opinions would possibly remove herself from the field and effectively silence her voice in the technology debate. The whole of the counseling profession can only benefit from dynamic discussion of controversial issues. We need everyone to be informed and stay in the game. We need disparate voices at the table to help sort out what technologies may be effectively used in the field, and how they may be safely and appropriately implemented.

Technology will not go away. It will only become more ubiquitous within the professional world. History has taught us that technology infiltrates professions and becomes integral to their practice. For example, accountants used to painstakingly fill out tax forms by hand and use long, manual calculations to accurately report information. In today’s world, they have software programs that prompt them for information and compute complex calculations for them. Another example is the advent of the less invasive robotic surgeries that are becoming more commonplace in operating rooms nationwide. I suspect each of these technological advances had their skeptics, but as time has moved on, they have become accepted methods within their fields.

Emergent and novel approaches are very often met with skepticism. Telephones and televisions had their share of naysayers when they began to land in homes. Today, we can hardly imagine a world without them. Leaving the comfort of what we know and venturing into the unknown can be frightening, especially when we must be concerned with the welfare of others and our own ability to remain above reproach, both ethically and legally.

However, technology is all around us and certainly now is entering our field. Journals such as Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, Journal of Virtual Worlds and Education, and Journal of Technology in Counseling offer insight into the ways technology is at work in our professional world. The scholarly articles available in these publications offer good information that can help us critically assess the role of technology in our field.

In his 2001 article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky suggests the concept of two types of digital users. Digital natives are those individuals who were birthed and bathed in an environment of digital technology, while digital immigrants are those who have ventured into the technology landscape, though their use is still colored by the “accent” of their homeland of nonuse (Prensky suggests that the accent is defined by such behaviors as printing out emails, beckoning others to a computer screen to view a website instead of simply emailing a URL, and printing text to edit instead of editing onscreen; the thickness of the accent is determined by the number of these behaviors that exist). As in any melding of cultures, an attitude of openness and understanding is necessary to attain smooth blend lines. However, in the case of counseling professionals contemplating the use of various technological tools in their practice, more is required.

We must purpose to become digital explorers, willing to set out and take in the new territory, while equipping ourselves with sound information along the way. We must share insight with each other and be willing to retrace our steps and move along a different path when professional discernment tells us it is prudent to do so. We must be willing to step in the weeds of the faintly trodden road to cultivate and nurture the possibilities of technology that appropriately fit the profession, its responsibilities and its clients. By doing so, we demonstrate our commitment to offering the very best to those who depend on professional counselors.

This ideal is attainable, but only possible when we have full representation at the table. The legal and ethical issues facing counselors integrating new methods of digital communications and therapies into their practice are vast, and they must be addressed. To effectively do so requires a tapestry of opinions and perspectives. Technology in the field is not an all-or-nothing proposition. We must strike a balance in terms of what is appropriate, empirically proven to be beneficial and ethically sound.

It begins by becoming informed. As each of us strives to learn more about the ways technology may be used to further our work, along with the potential cautions and risks, the result is an educated body of professionals dedicated to the enhancement of our field and clients. Becoming informed requires both personal and professional commitment. The following steps are a great place to start:

• Work to integrate journals addressing technology in counseling into your professional reading schedule.

• Acknowledge the trend of technology use in the field and purpose to become aware of how colleagues across the discipline are implementing various forms.

• Recognize the often overwrought sensationalism of technology by the media (for example, a focus on the sexual aspects of virtual worlds), and seek out facts to assist in developing a well-informed and balanced opinion.

• Examine your own technology use, and set out to become a technology explorer.

• Consider volunteering to serve on a professional committee that is addressing technology in the field.

As opinions are developed and evolve over time, stay engaged to advocate for what you believe to be right and true. Volunteer to serve on committees that are exploring the various facets of implementing current technologies in the profession. Research uses and outcomes of technologically based approaches. The key is remaining open to novel and innovative methods of utilizing technology, while maintaining a critical and discerning stance that ensures balance. Stay in the conversation by remaining engaged.

Walking away from the table because we don’t agree with what we sense to be the trend only negates our ability to influence the future path of our field. Our profession needs the voice of each of us. Don’t be the kid who picks up his marbles and races home because he doesn’t like where the game is going. Let’s join our colleagues for a well-informed exchange of ideas and meaningful debate. An environment rife with unique and challenging opinions is an exciting place to be because it is the best breeding ground for growth.

Only time will tell whether the counselor mentioned earlier will choose to remain in practice. My hope is that she reconsiders her plan and offers her voice to the discussion surrounding the use of technology. Though I may not personally agree with her views, I wholeheartedly welcome her to the table. It is my belief that her voice, joined with others, can effectively mold and shape the future of professional counseling in such a way that it has the potential to benefit so many. There is a chair at the table for everyone. Allow me to be the first to offer one to you.

With over fifteen years of experience in the helping professions, Michelle Stone has worked with a variety of populations and organizations, providing both direct services as well as consultation. She holds a degree in Psychology and intends to research computer-mediated human interaction while pursuing a graduate degree. She may be reached at michelle.d.stone@gmail.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Guterman

    Thanks for sharing your experience and suggestions. Some people, including counselors, can’t get enough of the new technologies, whereas others reject them altogether. Most seem to fall somewhere in between. There will always be a group, not necessarily like the counselor you mentioned, who prefer traditional ways, similar perhaps to some proponents of the environmental movement who are against virtually anything synthetic, made by humans, and technological. On the other hand, there is a faction, a growing one that can’t get enough of technology. Let me also add to your excellent discussion by mentioning that I wrote a Counseling Today article in 2011 about the possibility of a technological Singularity and its potential implications for counseling ( see http://ct.counseling.org/2011/10/look-out-and-beyond-the-singularity-is-coming ).

    Reply
  2. Tracey

    Hi Michelle,
    thank you for a timely, well-written and sensitive article. I also completely respect the speakers feelings on the matter, and would relish a chance to chat with her. What is it exactly that she objects to? Is she up to date with current technology, but believes that these communication methods are inferior to face to face? Or is it fear of change that motivates her stance?
    You said that ‘Walking away from the table because we don’t agree with what we sense to be the trend only negates our ability to influence the future path of our field.’ So very true!
    May we all have the courage to have our say and influence the path of our field!

    Reply
  3. Gene

    Michelle,
    Thank you for your useful thoughts. As so often happens, the exchange of ideas is thwarted when either side believes that the other sides error starts with even having a different thought. (This is the weakness of the Republican Party.) I am of the Boomer generation and the origins of our interest in the profession of counseling grew from our questioning the establishment during the Vietnam War and the ethical lapses of our government. This thread generated a generation of therapists that questioned, as they should, the quality of life that is possible when humans are viewed as objects with conditional value. This view as led to a view that as we move from the “natural” and embrace technology we will fail to protect the values that allow us to ascend to the express the higher meaning of being human. The flaw though, in my generation, is the belief that that debate has been answered and therefore they reject technology because it is dehumanizing. I wish these voices would stay in the discussion. They have a valuable point of view that we need to include. The life of instant information and communication can be exhausting and we may need to return to simplicity at times, but the technology we criticize may offer kinds of care we cannot imagine and I want those voices participating in any planning for the future.

    Reply

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