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Ellen Belluomini, Ph.D, MSW

Dr. Ellen Belluomini is an Assistant Professor in the Masters of Social Work program at Brandman University and the founder of Intentional Systems Mentoring, a future forward consulting firm. Dr. Belluomini is the author of the blog “Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice” and has written about challenges and opportunities of technology for in social work practice.

Technology innovations, new forms of social media, apps and websites, endeavor to solve any problem our clients have (or maybe didn’t know they have!). Digital options for mental health appear in Facebook ads, on websites, and even through email offers. A client’s search engine behaviors lay out a map to their interests. Just as digital cookies on the Internet leave crumbs for target specific advertising, much can be gleaned about our clients through their digital uses and behaviors. The therapist becomes a data miner.

Technology usage can contribute to dysfunction, but it can also offer a window into the client’s lifestyle and digital interventions which enhance therapeutic outcomes. The basics of assessment, interventions, and treatment planning now include a proliferation of options to help the therapeutic process. An ethical practice includes a therapist whom understands what the digital environment brings to the treatment process. The tech savvy therapist doesn’t need to know HTML, website design, or even have a Twitter account, but they do need the following qualities to be effective in the digital age.

1. Be open to change.

Therapists are all about the process of change for their clients. Now, the therapist must be open to the change technology brings to the therapeutic process. Yes, it can seem overwhelming to keep up. Think of it as a lifelong learning opportunity. The key is being positive in this process.  Proactive behavior will help your adjustment to the changes in our digital lives.

2. Just Ask.

The assessment process needs to include questions about how the client uses technology, what types of digital tools or apps they use, and how often. Children, adolescents, and less digitally literate clients are especially vulnerable to the challenges of this technological age. The more tech savvy the client, the more the therapist needs to up their game. A thorough technology assessment can be found here. (h)

3. Do your homework. 

Every therapist should keep up-to-date on problems or solutions present with their client populations regarding technology. Are you referring clients to apps which have been discontinued? How is Twitch impacting teens? What are normal vs. abnormal behaviors for social media use? Be aware of news items when scrolling online and their impact on your clients. A mindfulness approach to interpreting tech stories will help you in translating information to practice. Areas to keep informed about include privacy, health and wellness, bullying, gaming, evidence-based apps, disparities, and risks of use. Be sure to google these topics or click on these stories. A therapist can curate their feed by Googling this information, signing up for a tech newsfeed, or clicking on related news links. The information will come right to your social media feed. One way to keep informed about evidence-based apps and digital health is by following PsyberGuide by subscribing to our newsletter.

4. What is the risk?

Technology behaviors not only present a risk to our clients, but the same risks apply to ourselves as therapists.  Education about data breaches, manipulation, bullying, privacy/confidentiality issues and ethical problems enhance the protection of your clients and your practice. If a negative behavior is videotaped or screen shot is taken, a post can go viral and ruin a career. Keep up to date with your technology ethics training to protect your practice. Checking privacy settings and developing a personal code of ethical online behavior help mitigate your risk.  Therapists can never be 100% risk free, but developing policies and procedures for your practice will strengthen ethical issues which may arise.

Knowing everything about technology is not the answer, understanding how to integrate the appropriate technology ethically is the answer.  What can you do to be a tech savvy therapist? Read a selection of professional therapy organizations code of technology ethics. Hire a tech consultant. Start a consultation group for tech integrating therapists. Ask for help from your supervisor. Visit websites like PsyberGuide, and curate articles on topics of technology and clinical practice. Following any of these suggestions will empower you to be an ethical tech savvy therapist.