"Why Can't We Be Friends?" Facebook Friend Requests
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
It's very common for therapists to recieve Facebook "friend" requests from past or current clients. Social networking is one of the most common forms of communication in the 21st century. There were over 2.19 billion monthly active users of Facebook in 2018 (Facebook, 2018).
In 2019, most people do not consider their Facebook "friends" to actually be close connections. A lot of people send these types of requests whenever they meet someone new (in fact, it's a common business marketing practice in a lot of professions).
But given the sensitive nature of a therapist's relationship with their clients, the strict codes of confidentiality we follow, and the gray area of disclosure that often happens on Facebook, accepting "friend" requests from clients is considered unethical. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics added the requirement that counselors avoid "personal virtual relationships" with clients. The other Behavioral Health Ethics Codes have similar stances.
Many clients and counselors have questioned whether these constraints are really necessary. I would argue that most of the time it may appear harmless. But there are many exceptions that we don't generally think about that could potentially create significant issues for you and for your client.
Ethical Complications Of "Friending" Clients Online
Information is not confidential or HIPPA compliant: If a client uses a social media platform to contact you, this information is not protected.
It can get you into legal hot water: If a client shares written information with you on social media, it becomes a part of their legal record.
Complicated and unwritten social media rules: How are you supposed to respond to posts of clients? If they post something about a topic you discuss in session, do they expect you to see it and respond? Will their feelings get hurt if they know you can see something and aren't commenting? Or would they feel embarrassed about you knowing details about their life that they didn't intentionally share with you in session?
Unintentional Disclosures: Perhaps your client learns something about you and feels bothered. Maybe you have a post about a political positon or cause you support. Your client may take leaps about your professional positions based on personal positions, whether these are accurate or not. Unfortunately, your client may struggle to bring these concerns up directly to you and your therapeutic rapport may be damaged as a result.
More Unintentional Disclosures: What if someone else could tag you in a post that shares information you don't want clients to know about? It's very hard to compartmentalize the information that ends up in a person's feed. Others may see something even before you do.
Access to your personal information: You may have information accessable that you would prefer to keep private. Where you live, private phone numbers, or information about family members, for example. Even if this information isn't published in your bio, a diligent person may be able to piece together details from posts and gather information that you didn't intend on sharing.
Two simple solutions that will help you avoid the above scenarios
Don't have a social media presence. Keep your personal accounts private and don't accept friend requests from clients. You can also add a blurb in your profile that explains why you don't "friend" clients.
Create a business page for social media. Again, keep your personal accounts private and don't accept friend requests from clients, but create a business page for professional interactions, deciminating information about your therapy practice, and supporting your community in destigmatizing mental health. In your profile, you can redirect clients to your Business page as an alternative to "friending" you.
One final point: a recent survey by found that 80% of people say that they check out a business's social media accounts before deciding to use their services (G/O Media). This goes for the counseling world as well. Having a presence can increase your impact and get you busy with the clients you love to support, providing a benefit to your clients rather than risk.