The late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century have been characterized by rapid advancement in technology. The advancements have made it possible to have a wide area of application of the technology. Some of the areas were thought to be never realistically possible. Among the most important and significant technology development is the development of the internet, which has facilitated the breaking up of the barrier of space and time. Also, the internet has continued to gain several different applications due to the advantages mentioned above.
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Internet is used by business organizations to facilitate most of their activities; for instance, by learning institutions to facilitate the sharing of knowledge to people who may be in faraway locations, and by intellectuals to facilitate the sharing of ideas and very many other applications. The internet has even been used to facilitate online counseling. However, the use of the internet and other technological advancements has brought up issues that previously never used to exist. These developments have complicated some of the issues, which could be easily monitored and solved. Among the issues, which the technological advancements have helped complicate, are the ethical issues. This paper will discuss the ethical issues that are associated with online or technology-assisted counseling.
Online/technology aided counseling
Among the foundational elements of counseling is the face-to-face contact, which exists between the counselor and the client. Thus, questions have been raised as to whether the contact between the counselor and the client can be duplicated in the virtual world (Patrick, 2006). However, it is a fact that online counseling has facilitated the increase in communication and work management of the counselors. For the counselors to effectively offer online counseling, they must be able to understand people who are most likely to seek and appreciate online counseling and understand and evaluate the core issues that may be facing the client. Also, the counselor should be able to consider issues associated with access to online services and ethnic issues of the client (Patrick, 2006).
Ethical responsibility to provide service
This is among the major issues that face counselors who are involved in the provision of psychotherapeutic services. Most of the counselors usually hold reservations about the provision of online counseling services. However, in some instances, the client may request it, hence making it have a high probability of success. However, lack of provision of the services by qualified counselors may lead to people seeking counseling services from people who are not qualified. Hence, the qualified professionals must ensure that they provide the services (Childress, 2000); these medical professionals should, therefore, devise means of minimizing the limitations of the online counseling (Correy, Correy & Callanan, 2007).
Risks posed by online counseling
Just like face-to-face counseling, the provision of online counseling poses several risks during the administrations of therapy by the counselor. In the conventional methods, risks mainly involve a breach of confidentiality of information shared between the client and the counselor, and sexual attractions between the counselor and the client. However, the risks in online counseling are far much magnified than in conventional counseling methods. The confidential information shared between the client and the counselor is prone to intrusion by hackers and other people who may have access to the computer or files where the confidential information is stored (Childress, 2000).
The use of online counseling also poses other risks to the client. For instance, The counselor may inadvertently harm the client due to miscommunication. Text-based communication is usually more prone to miscommunication as it lacks the verbal inclinations that may be used to modify the meaning (Childress, 2000). In the provision of counseling services, non-verbal communication is very important for the evaluation of the client by the counselor. Non-verbal communication includes gestures, posture, dress, appearance, and facial expressions. However, the evaluation of the client by the counselor is made difficult, as there is no physical contact between the two (Kraus, Zack & Sticker, 2000)
Competence of the counselors
Most counselors are usually trained to offer counseling via the conventional face-to-face method. Therefore, the counselors may be good at offering face-to-face counseling but ineffective in offering online counseling, which is text-based. The text-based counseling may have many greater challenges for the counselors; for example, the text may seem harsher than intended, which would be the case in verbal communications that is capable of altering the meaning of the text to suit the intended meaning of the information or to respond to the emotions of the client (Childress, 2000). Counselors should therefore critically evaluate themselves and determine whether they are capable of offering online counseling or enroll in relevant training that may help them get the required skills.
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Risks to the counselor
In online counseling, the counselor may communicate with the client through sending text messages to inform them when he is online so that they initiate a chat session where he will provide the therapeutic services. The counselor and the client may also communicate via e-mail. However, the setting may facilitate the client to sign up into the social groups, which the counselor is involved in, and stalk the counselor. The client may also continue sending the counselor messages even after the professional contract between the client and the counselor has been terminated (Childress, 2000).
Practice jurisdiction and licensure
One of the major characteristics of the provision of online services is the lack of geographical boundaries in access to the services. People who offer services can be able to do so in areas that are far beyond their area of operation; counselors can thus offer counseling services to people who are far beyond their area of jurisdiction. However, this poses a great problem in the jurisdiction of the practice and the licensure of the counselor (Correy, Correy & Callanan, 2007).
Therefore, the delivery of counseling services online to areas that are far beyond the jurisdiction of the counselors is a violation of the legal requirements in the area. However, several people have argued that counselors do not commit any offense, he is practicing within his jurisdiction; the client is the one who travels online to the office of the counselor to access the services (Khelifa, n.d). Also, to prevent litigation, the counselors must be conversant with the laws and regulations that govern their practice in the area of jurisdiction (Koutsonica, 2009).
In most of the areas, the malpractice of the counselors is usually covered by their professional liability insurance (Locke, Myers & Herr, 2001). However, it is difficult for insurance companies to cover the malpractice of professional counselors. This is due to the difficulty in defining the modalities of online practice. This makes most insurance companies not to offer professional liability insurance to online counselors.
Online counseling is not restricted to only text-based communication between the counselor and the client. It may also be administered via video communication between the counselor and the client; the communication may be either live or pre-recorded. In live counseling, the counselor and the client communicate via a webcam, a method of online counseling that is closest to face communication.
However, the two parties must have access to a webcam and a microphone to communicate effectively. Importantly, the counselor and the client should be able to test that the aids work before the beginning of the counseling session, while the two parties must also take measures to ensure confidentiality of the information they are sharing. They must, therefore. be in a place where they cannot be overheard by anyone else (Barnard, 2010).
Video counseling has many superior characteristics as compared to other means of online counseling. It is not dependent on the typing skills of the two parties. Also, verbal communication enables the two parties to effectively communicate with each other using facial expressions and other gestures.
Addressing issues of online counseling
In most jurisdictions, there are no laws set to regulate online counseling. However, most of the professional organizations on counseling have realized that online or technology-based counseling is an aspect of counseling they must be able to effectively tackle. Several measures have been proposed to address the issues that have been brought about by the online counseling. Among the major issues of online counseling is the competency of the counseling method. To help in solving the issue, professional counselors should take the following measures:
- Diagnose the client at the beginning of the treatment and determine whether he will be a good candidate for online counseling. The initial diagnosis of the client must be through face to face contact
- Fully inform the client of the limits and expectations of the online relationship between the two
- Develop a plan on how to effectively deal with any emergencies which may arise during the provision of the online counseling
- Inform the client in advance the risks to the confidentiality of the information shared online and discuss what actions might be taken should the confidentiality of the information be compromised
- Discuss with the client in advance, how the failure of the technological aids will be addressed (Correy, Correy & Callanan, 2007).
Online counseling is a phenomenon that is expected to develop greatly in the 21st century as technological advancements facilitate the application of several counseling practices. The relevant bodies should, therefore, embrace the practice and facilitate the formulation of several policies to regulate the practice. The solution to the ethical issues associated with the practice will determine greatly the success or failure of integration of the practice in counseling.
Barnard, J. (2010).Online Counselling: a Guide for Therapists. St Agnes: MTC Books.
Childress, C.A. (2000). Ethical Issues in Providing Online Psychotherapeutic Interventions. Journal of Medical Internet Research, Vol 2. No. 1. Web.
Correy, G., Correy M.S. & Callanan, P. (2007). Issues and Ethics in the helping profession. OH: Cengage Learning. Web.
Khelifa, M. (N.d). Online Counseling: Competing ethically and safely in a global environment. Zayed University, UAE. Web.
Koutsonica, H. (2009). Online counseling. Journal webscience. Web.
Kraus, R., Zack, J. S. and Sticker, G. (2004). Online counseling: a handbook for mental health professionals. London: Academic Press. Web.
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Locke, D. C., Myers, J. E. & Herr, E. L. (2001). The handbook of counseling. CA: SAGE.
Patrick, P.K.S. (2006). Providing Counseling Online: Because We “Can,” Should We? Vistas Online. Web.