If You Want to Avoid Grief in Cyberspace, Don't Use "Dr." or "Psy" as Your Surname

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

January/February 1998

An ever-increasing number of psychologists has established a "presence" in cyberspace. Four in 10 have visited the web, well ahead of the general population.

First time users learn that their first task is to select a "username" that will serve as their online identity. Those who choose America Online, as over 10,000,000 people have, will be known as username@aol.com. Those who pick another Internet Service Provider (ISP) find that their address will be similar. If you choose Earthlink, for example, you would be username@earthlink.net. And, if you decide to have your own domain (the last part of the address after the @ sign) where you can have your e-mail sent and even have your own web site, you might be known as username@yourdomain.com. Mine is rosen@technostress.com and it only cost $100 to establish the name, $20-$25 per month to "host" it (it has to be hosted by an ISP even if you choose not to turn it into a web site), and a fee of $100 every two years to retain the name.

As I have watched psychologists become more wired I have become concerned about the identities that many have chosen. I have been sent e-mail by people with names such as cyberdoc and drsigfreud. I have participated in online discussion groups and chat rooms (see my May/June 1995 National Psychologist article) with people like psychdoc and have had visitors to my web page with monikers like drjim. Each of them has represented him or herself as a doctor by their choice of username and some have even gone so far as to include a signature (a standard closing to their e-mail) that lists their address, phone number and, in at least one case, psychology license number.

What are the benefits of establishing such an overt online presence as a psychologist? First, and foremost, is advertising and marketing psychological services. In this era of managed health care and shrinking reimbursements, psychologists are scampering to find ways to increase their client base. Advertising provides one such opportunity. On the Internet you have millions of potential viewers, many of whom may be in close proximity to your practice, who may want to avail themselves of your services. An online presence can spell out those services in an attractive format and potentially increase your business.

Another benefit is that being online can increase your business market from services rendered to people within, say, 50 miles of your office to people anywhere in the world. You can market books, materials and even direct services in cyberspace and people can purchase them through a credit card or using cyber cash.

So, what's the downside? One serious issue about portraying yourself to the world as a mental health practitioner must be concern about liability. Suppose you are engaged in a cancer support group online and your username, PsyDrJim, identifies you as a psychologist and someone asks for your opinion on a psychological issue. Is your answer coming from Dr. Jim the psychologist or from just "good old Jim", a member of the support group? Unless you state up front in each message to the group that your opinion is coming from "good old Jim" you are stating a professional opinion. Unlike professional opinions uttered in the privacy of your office, this one is proffered to the world. And, in many cases, that opinion is on record forever (see my articles in the November/December 1996 and January/February 1997 issues of The National Psychologist for more about this). Do you want your opinions saved and available to anyone in cyberspace?

Another concern is licensing. You are licensed in the state in which you practice. But online, people can be as close as next door and as far as across half the planet. If you are licensed in California but are discussing psychological issues and giving advise under the identity of a licensed practitioner to someone in Ohio, which laws govern your behavior - those of the licensing board in California or Ohio?

Finally, consider the problem of your "limits of competency." The American Psychological Association code of ethics, as well as the codes of individual state boards, insist that psychologists only practice in areas for which they have received specific training. When you are hanging out in a cyberspace discussion group wearing your license as your handle, will you only comment on areas in which you are qualified? If you chance to "pop off" about an issue will your word be taken as that of an expert?

The solution is simple. When you adopt a username select one that does not indicate your profession. When you send e-mail messages send them as just "good old Jim" and not PsyDrJim. If you want to establish a professional presence, take on more than one username. Many online services and ISPs will allow you to have several usernames for a single account. Use your professional one only when you are certain to adhere to legal and ethical constraints of our profession. The rest of the time you can be just "good old Jim."

Copyright, 1997, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.