What You Should Know About Cybertherapy

Cybertherapy is a process designed to produce behavioral changes via the Internet, using electronic media.  It is also called telepsychology or telementalhealth, among other names.  The American Psychological Association defines telepsychology as “the provision of psychological services using telecommunication technologies“.

The traditional form of the psychotherapeutic process of change is by means of a face-to-face contact between the therapist or agent of change and the client or patient.  This contact is governed by professional ethical and legal norms in effect for each professional group in each country.

The face-to-face contact in real-time allows both the therapist and the client or patient the possibility of making use of the various senses in the process of the interaction.  As an example, in the face-to-face process, the participants not only mutually see and hear one another, but can also observe in detail, among others, body movements or gestures, the intonation and tone of the verbal content and, in general, everything that is implied and communicated by non-verbal behavior.

Of course, there are circumstances in which the face-to-face therapeutic process is not possible.  One of the most successful examples constitutes that of the crisis intervention telephone hotlines.  This is a modality that has saved many lives in danger, for example, of a suicide attempt in progress.

In other more common cases, many people initially search for information or guidance about a situation or problem, more than for a therapeutic process.  This is precisely why it is important that those who respond to these requests for information be persons who are professionally prepared and qualified.

The psychotherapeutic modality that we call cybertherapy has become popular precisely because of the cultural revolution that has implied the development of cybernetics and the Internet in the last decades.  The free access to information has made many people to trust the media for the search for answers to personal concerns of all types.

Precisely the high cost of the face-to-face individualized attention and all that is implied in mechanical terms by the selection of the therapist, making the appointment, and attending it, have made many people to prefer the additional level of security afforded by the distance involved, and of being behind the “protection” of a screen or monitor.

In fact, apparently, even in interpersonal and love relationships, for some people communicating in this fashion is easier than when face-to-face.  For others, the dependence on the cybernetic media is part of their lifestyle, and constitutes a tool with which he or she tries to satisfy all needs.

The cybertherapeutic process may occur via e-mails or instant text messaging, generally occurring with responses deferred in time; alternatively, via real-time teleconferencing.

In the case of the e-mails and/or instant messages, the emphasis is on the written communication, with most non-verbal cues and nuances lost, while with teleconferencing, the visualization of the participants generally occurs with the use of audiovisual cameras adapted to the computational system, and the participants interact face-to-face in real time.  Smartphones have extended the capabilities of teleconferencing dramatically, as no other technical equipment is required.

In any event, one of the main differences is in the temporality of the process carried out.  In the e-mails, the exchange is generally carried out at different times, while with teleconferencing and instant messaging the contact is in real time, that is, as part of a dialog occurring at that precise moment.

Cybertherapy usually starts with a search in the Internet for information about a concern or problem.  It is possible that the results found may make the person decide, if he or she has not already done so, that help or more personalized information is required.  The option is then to visit some websites, like the one by AllExperts (http://www.allexperts.com), among many others, who offer guidance or specialized counseling for free, in a limited manner.

If desired, the person may decide to seek therapeutic services rather than limited information, and that instead of face-to-face, to prefer receiving these via the Internet, that is, cybertherapy.

Once again, the person proceeds to search for websites providing these services and thus begins the processing of information found about the services offered, the academic background and credentials of the cybertherapist, as well as the costs involved, and forms of payment.  Ratings of the service platforms and of the cybertherapists can be easily found by running an Internet search.

You should ask if the cybertherapist is legally registered in your province or state to practice his mental health profession, and what resources can the cybertherapist offer you in the event that you require immediate emergency services or other face-to-face services.

One important question you need to ask the cybertherapist is if the teleconferencing will take place via a secure channel.  Media like the popular Skype and similar are not secured, do not offer confidentiality for your protected health information, and should not be used for this type of service.  Otherwise, Skype and the other similar utilities offer great services in normal communications.

To make this important decision, we recommend to choose carefully your cybertherapist, and to clarify in advance the reaches of the service, how it will be carried out, and its costs.

Among the elements to be considered is the express declaration and in writing that the applicable ethical and legal professional standards are adhered to, and the manner in which to confirm this in the Internet.

Additionally, it is convenient that the cybertherapist indicates in his or her website the adherence to the requirements advanced by specialized groups in this area, such as the International Society for Mental Health on Line (http://www.ismho.org/), Metanoia (http://www.metanoia.org/imhs/), as well as the strict adherence to standards such as those of the College of Psychologists of Ontario (http://www.cpo.on.ca/), the California Board of Psychology (http://www.psychboard.ca.gov/), the Colegio Dominicano de Psicólogos (http://www.idpp.org/idpp_eng/codopsi_eng/codopsi_eng01.htm), the Código Deontológico del Psicólogo of the Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos of Spain (http://www.cop.es/index.php?page=CodigoDeontologico), and to what is expressed in the position document of the California Board of Psychology (http://www.psychology.ca.gov/consumers/internet_thrpy.shtml).  Of special consideration is the Guidelines for the Practice of Telepsychology of the American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/telepsychology.aspx).

Cybertherapy can be recognized as a useful instrument to help people who want to modify a behavior or improve some aspect of their lives, as long as the ethical and legal standards which apply are adhered to.  To make sure that your experience with this therapeutic approach is effective, efficient, and that it fulfills your expectations, we advise you to follow the suggestions herein indicated.

 

© 2009 Angel Enrique Pacheco, Ph.D., C.Psych.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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