How technology and the computer age are changing the counseling profession
First off, let’s all thank Al Gore — this Internet thing is genius! But in all seriousness, what recent invention has exerted as much influence on the way we live, learn, work and communicate as the World Wide Web and other computer-related technology? More and more counselors have come to accept, even if sometimes begrudgingly, that their profession is not immune to technology’s impact. Instead, they are actively looking for ways that technology can be of “help” to the helping professions. As such, new technologies are influencing how counseling is being accessed, delivered and taught.
Along with the good, there is always some bad, of course, and technology has produced, or at least served as the gateway to, numerous trouble spots, including cyberaffairs, web gambling and pornography addictions, online bullying and stalking, to name a few.
Counseling Today asked American Counseling Association members across professional spectrums to discuss the ways in which technology is affecting their professional lives, whether through use of the latest tech gadgets and educational tools or in changing the face of the client issues they treat.
Computer-mediated counseling is any type of counseling that uses a computer for delivery of services, whether via e-mail, chat rooms, online support groups or video conferencing.
“It’s an emerging professional issue, although what I’ve found is that there isn’t a lot research that really examines this area of counseling,” says Kristopher Goodrich, a doctoral candidate in counselor education at Syracuse University who has studied the topic. “But it has some tremendous implications in terms of what we do and how we work with individuals.”
He notes some of the positive and negative aspects of this modality:
- Access to clients in rural areas
- Time flexibility; done at a client’s leisure without having to travel to a counselor’s office
- Proved effective with cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety according to a study published in 2004 by Kate Cavanagh and David Shapiro in the Journal of Clinical Psychology
- Limited research proving its effectiveness with other counseling approaches and issues
- Possibility of counselor bias
- Therapeutic alliance: Can a strong rapport be established with a client online?
- Cost of technology/equipment
Another concern some have raised is that computer-mediated counseling could cause inadvertent violations of licensing laws if the client being treated online resides in a state different from that of the counselor.
Goodrich also notes that not nearly enough research has been done pertaining to multicultural issues with computer-mediated counseling. He has found only one related study that examined a non-Caucasian population. The study, which focused on the therapeutic alliance with male Asian American college students, showed that computer-mediated counseling resulted in a positive experience with this population.
Furthermore, Goodrich says, computer-mediated counseling is not suitable for addressing all client issues, but some research has shown it can be effective when treating anxiety disorders and depression and also in the areas of professional coaching and career counseling. “Computer-assisted counseling (using both computer-mediated and face-to-face counseling) has been proved to be more effective than counseling solely through the Internet,” he says. “If we are going to support this area of counseling, then we as educators really need to explore this area more and these issues. More research needs to be done, and we need to look at it from a scientific standpoint.”
Before counselors consider computer-mediated counseling, Goodrich advises that they take precautionary measures, including:
- Encrypting conversations to ensure confidentiality
- Performing risk assessments — know the contact information and locations of clients so these clients can be referred to local resources in cases of suicidal ideation or instances of other severe mental health risks
- Being aware of a client’s access and basic computer knowledge
- Knowing ethical codes for being a distance counselor (for more information, refer to the 2005 ACA Code of Ethics, Standard A.12., “Technology Applications” and the National Board for Certified Counselors webpage at nbcc.org/webethics2)
- Being cognizant of legal issues
- Acquiring proper licensure and credentials for distance counseling (For more information, contact NBCC at 336.547.0607 or nbcc.org. ReadyMinds, readyminds.com, is a provider of Distance Career Counseling along with the Center for Credentialing and Education, an affiliate of NBCC. ReadyMinds offers two opportunities for training and credentials for those wishing to use technology-assisted methodologies.)
Many teachers and students now consider dusty chalkboards and blinding overhead projectors archaic in the classroom. And how many of today’s students even remember the days of microfiche and musty encyclopedias? Current college students no longer scribble away, frantically taking notes. They come to class with laptops and multitask — listening, typing, surfing the web, instant messaging and checking e-mail. Just as younger generations have developed new ways of learning, educators have been prompted to keep up with technology and embrace new ways of teaching.
Chad Royal, a private practitioner and counselor educator at North Carolina Central University, digitally records his class lectures and makes them available to students via podcasts. Podcasts are voice recordings, similar to a radio program, posted on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player, such as an iPod. Listening to a podcast does not require an iPod, however. Any free software capable of reading an MP3 file, including such programs as iTunes, Windows MediaPlayer, RealAudio Player and Quicktime, can play a podcast.
Aside from recording class lectures, Royal suggests other ways counselor educators can use podcasts in the classroom (while including a disclaimer that podcasts do not replace class attendance):
- Providing simulated counseling sessions that demonstrate a particular counseling theory
- Providing guest speakers’ lectures (which can be recycled and distributed easily)
- Providing lectures for use with distance education courses
- Providing assignment instructions
- Providing advising instructions (instructions educators repeat every semester)
Royal also uses podcasts as a supervision tool. He digitally records students’ practicum and internship sessions rather than using standard audio or videocassette recordings. With podcasting, session recordings can be transferred electronically from intern to supervisor. Supervisors can review the sessions either on their portable device or a computer. If the podcast is transferred via course delivery system, such as Blackboard, the transfer is theoretically secured with password protection.
“For me as an instructor and supervisor, the quality of the recording is 10 times better,” he says. “You don’t have to spend hours with a microcassette recorder strapped to your ear trying to hear what’s on it. With the digital recording, it’s not only clearer, but it is also mobile, so I can take them wherever. I can even listen to them on my cell phone. It really has simplified my life.”
Royal openly admits that he has a love affair with his mobile phone, which plays MP3s and has Internet capabilities. “Going to the office, it’s all I need to take with me,” he says. “I can dictate progress notes, I can return calls and check e-mail. It’s less clutter. I’m not lugging around a briefcase anymore.” Royal also teaches online classes in the summer. With his mobile phone, he says, he is able to go on a family vacation and still teach class.
Other counselor educators have also discovered advantages in tapping into technology. “I never thought of myself as a techno-geek, yet my students say I am the most tech-savvy professor they have had — they add ‘especially for my age,’” says J. Barry Mascari, former president of the American Association of State Counseling Boards and a counselor educator at Kean University in Union, N.J.
He says implementing new tech tools has transformed the way he presents information to his students. “Technology certainly has helped classes. I have been developing a CD tool kit for my students in the Professional Orientation class that includes everything from the ACA Code of Ethics to licensure application forms to podcasts of shows that can enhance their learning,” he says. “The slides for each class are there along with journal or other articles for that day. One student said to me, ‘Thank you. This was so nice. No one has ever done anything like this in class for me before.’”
While incorporating technology into his teaching methods required more work on his part, at least initially, Mascari believes the effort was worth it because of the benefit to his students. When they walk into his class at the beginning of each semester, they have all the course materials on their own CD tool kit, which they can then access and review at any time. “The technology is there,” Mascari says, “so why not use it?”
MySpace or yours?
Adria E. Shipp, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is a former teacher and school counselor who has worked at the elementary through high school levels. In spite of some of the negative press surrounding online social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook, she believes counselors can use these services to connect with adolescent clients.
“The goal is to use MySpace as a counseling tool. MySpace doesn’t create problems, it reveals them,” she says. “It’s a really good tool to use to see how and discuss how young people are portraying themselves to the public.”
For instance, she explains, “Social skills can be observed, especially if a student has 975 online friends. You might need to talk about boundaries with that student. With that many friends, they are probably accepting friends that they don’t really know.”
Because they can see what students are saying in blogs and comments, as well as view photos being posted, counselors can present what they found online to students and open a dialogue about some of the questionable material. For school counselors who have set up personal profiles on MySpace or similar sites and been granted “friend” status by students, Shipp recommends occasionally looking at these students’ sites to see if any red flags need to be addressed, such as cyberbullying or alcohol/drug use. For private practitioners who have established profiles, she suggests mentioning the profile to clients and asking if they would like to share or view their profile together with the counselor. (For another perspective on counselors establishing online profiles, turn to Reader Viewpoint on page 44.)
“It’s a window into a student’s identity,” Shipp says. “What was pretty much invisible to adults can now be seen on (the students’) profiles. We can see how they want to be viewed by their friends, which many times is different than how they want to be viewed by adults.”
Shipp urges counselors to become familiar with social networking sites and to get comfortable talking to students about what they are posting online, because, on occasion, the posts may represent a cry for help. If the posts simply exhibit a lack of good judgment, the counselor can remind the student about the dangers of having inappropriate personal information accessible on the web. “We need to educate them on safety, not punish them,” she says. “Ask to see their page, but give them some time to clean it up. This forces them to look at their profile from an adult’s perspective.”
Shipp also says it’s important for counselors to help educate parents about MySpace and other online social networking sites. She gives parents the following advice concerning their children’s online profiles:
- Make sure the child’s or teen’s profile and blog are set to “private,” a security setting that only allows “invited” friends to view the profile
- Make sure the child or teen is only listing his or her home state on the profile rather than a specific location
- Make sure the child or teen is posting his or her correct age
- Tell the child or teen to accept only friends on their profile — no strangers
- Tell the child or teen to keep personal information to a minimum
Additionally, she says parents should:
- Inform children and teens that not all photos are appropriate for online use
- Designate an open area in the house for the computer instead of letting kids keep a computer behind closed doors
- Establish computer curfews, especially if parents go to bed earlier than their kids
- Be familiar with “text speak” or e-mail/texting shorthand (see “Common ‘text speak’” on page 38)
Additional tips are available on MySpace under “Tips for Parents.”
“Parents know their children’s real-life friends,” Shipp says. “They should know their online friends as well. It can be dangerous for children and teenagers. We have to help kids make smart decisions.”
Shipp says a good way for parents to monitor a child’s MySpace account is to ask the child to help them create their own profiles. However, parents must lead by example and refrain from posting adult content if they are in fact linked to their child’s profile.
As with parents, Shipp strongly urges counselors who create online profiles to keep them professional. “It can still be fun, but you have to refer back to our Code of Ethics . The same rules apply online and offline,” she says. “The research shows that students really like it if their counselors, teachers and professors have MySpace or Facebook profiles, but they are only receptive to it if the professional is representing themselves the same way online as offline.”
Jane Webber, a counselor educator at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., has her own Facebook profile and makes it available to her students and younger clients. “I work primarily with adolescents and young adults. They live and communicate in e-culture. To earn their respect and confidence, I need to appreciate and thrive in their culture,” she says. “Their social rules are different and impact how they relate. I have no theoretical or clinical reason not to e-mail or text message or respond to a Facebook invitation. I need to integrate technology into everything to be truly empathic and congruent with the e-world of teens.”
However, Webber adds, mental heath professionals should be careful not to come across as “too chummy” or try to be “cool.” And online profiles should not contain any information that wouldn’t be disclosed in a person-to-person session, she emphasizes. “It’s OK for us to be a little informal or geeky, but be aware of that slippery slope into ethical violations,” she says.
What is appropriate for counselors to share on their online profiles? Webber suggests the following:
- Benign photos (nothing suggestive but something more personal than a professional head shot)
- Favorite quotes
- Favorite books or movies
- A description of counseling services provided
If counselors are unsure of whether they should post certain types of content, Webber advises them to think about what their colleagues might say or criticize about their profile. Another good rule, she adds, is not to include personal information, phone numbers, addresses or information about family members or the counselor’s private life.
“You have to ask yourself, would you be embarrassed if your supervisor or grandmother saw your profile? It should be genuine, warm and friendly, but it also should have a feeling of boundaries and professionalism,” she says. “We have to balance accessibility with proper decorum.”
Angela Kennedy is a senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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