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What does your online presence say about you?

When I deliver training on Online Safety and Managing Professional Identity online I play a You Tube clip with a similar title, an american clip, which lists all the perils of the internet and the information that may be out there about us which could cause us to lose a job, college place, be turned down for a mortgage and so on. It starts with the scariest scenario and then tells us what we can do about it.

Although my online safety training is mainly for social care staff, teachers and foster carers, as I progress through my counselling training I have been thinking about the profile of many counsellors online, in both a professional and personal context, as well as how our online presence fits with counsellor self-disclosure in the therapy room.

Self-disclosure I believe becomes more significant when we consider what information clients, colleagues and employers can find out about us before they even chose us as a counsellor. Can we be congruent with verbal information in therapy, such as whether we have children, if they are then publicly displayed as our Facebook cover photo or we have tweeted a family picture of a trip to the zoo?

Professional Profiles – What can we learn from Tinder?

There are many websites which now offer counsellor listings and directories. We can ‘search for a counsellor, usually via location or postcode, but also by specialism or even languages spoken. These websites contain our professional online profiles; namely the information that we want to project to potential clients. These can be a stand-alone profile, or contain a link to a counsellor’s website, place of work, or even Twitter and Facebook page. So, what does your online (professional) presence say about you? And how do you know? Do we ask for peer review feedback?

As part of my counsellor training I have been searching for a local therapist. Other than word of mouth, the first step to search is Google. I have looked at many profiles and rejected each one so far, so why and how have I made this decision from online information.

I am looking for someone with whom I can feel safe and who I feel will understand me. I need to make a judgement from the information I read and see, and the main reason for’ swiping left’ is the belief that this person is not like me (whether this be in age, appearance, background or religious beliefs for example) but what hasn’t featured in my decision process is qualifications or experience. I need to connect with the “I am” before the “I have”.

Although this digression to Tinder terminology may seem flippant and tongue in cheek; there are serious similarities. On Tinder (or other dating sites) people are searching for a relationship with another person, and a connection needs to made with someone from their online profile and information – swipe left; swipe right – decisions are made with almost instantaneous processing of information. Is the search for a therapeutic relationship any different? A connection needs to be made with a counsellor that makes the client feel they can trust and share.

In order to create trust online we look for others with characteristics similar to ourselves. A fascinating TED talk by Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, shows how people were persuaded to open up their homes to strangers and post pictures of their most intimate spaces on the internet. We are brought up with the notion that stranger = danger, and this study showed that we have a natural social bias to trust people who are like us based on factors such as age and location, and building this trust is based on the right amount of disclosure. Share too little or too much and acceptance rates go down.

So, if counsellors online are strangers, we are programmed to see danger rather than trust, we have an inbuilt natural social selection process, coupled with the vulnerability of the issues that are leading us to search for a counsellor. Putting this all together feels a very precarious process? Airbnb worked out a ‘design for trust’ based on reviews, similarity, reputation and self-disclosure. How do we as counsellors get this right on the internet, and especially on social media?

Personal profiles and some suggestions

In addition to a professional profile, many counsellors are active on social media sites. I follow many colleagues on Twitter and some on Facebook. The dilemma for social media is the balance between the professional and the personal. Is your account both, or do you have separate accounts? What can potential clients find if they Google search? Our social media accounts can easily become blurred by what is known as the dis-inhibition effect – where the anonymity of the internet leads to a false sense of security with our ‘friends' and 'followers’ in relation to the increasingly personal information that is shared.

Not to say this is wrong in any way, but to consider the question whether information that we post online, perhaps only to our friends and family, can be then shared publicly and are we OK with this?

Here are a few suggestions for managing online information:

  • Think before you post ANYTHING online – the internet never forgets and even deleted information can still be out there.

  • Google yourself regularly (or via another search engine). Are you happy with the information you find? Ask a friend to do this as well from a device you don’t own

  • Test your privacy setting on your personal accounts, and ask a friend to do this as well. For example turn on timeline review in Facebook and see how your profile looks to others

  • Do these checks directly with popular social media sites, even if you don’t have an account – it is easy for others to set up false accounts in someone’s name.

  • Think about cross-site permissions. You may think you are only uploading to one site, but your recent purchase on Amazon may pop up on Twitter!

  • Consider your language online and how others may interpret this, especially when using abbreviations and emoji’s.

  • Discuss your expectations with friends – Do friends know if you are happy to be tagged in their photos for example, which may become public.

  • Do you work for an organisation that has rules about your online behaviour? Do you know what these are?

  • Know how to report a problem. If come across libelous or inappropriate material do you know how to get this taken down?

I believe that peer review is important online, as how we think we may present to others can be different from what others see. We have an inbuilt sense of our self-image, but is this what others interpret? We all perceive information in different ways and we are all looking for something different in a counsellor, the psychological concept of confirmation bias may just get in the way here. However, I will make an assumption that many counsellors get work from their online listing just as many people will get dates from Tinder. It is that which makes us all different that attracts others.

So, if we think of our online image in the context of creating and establishing a therapeutic relationship which is being judged and perceived online in the first instance, maybe counsellors can learn something from Tinder. And if we are interested in creating a sense of trust via our online presence, the TED talk from Airbnb is an excellent watch.

Authors Bio


Lynn Findlay is a social worker and trainer for The Foster Care Co-operative and a trainee counsellor Academy S.P.A.C.E in Sheffield. Her interests are trauma-informed practice, mental health and online safety; as well as writing and running the much loved online fostering book club.

You can hear more from Lynn on her personal blog here

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