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Looking up clients online without their consent is almost always unethical, experts say.

Time for an ethics reality check: 98 percent of clinical, counseling and school doctoral psychology students report having looked up a client online, according to a study published in the August issue of Training and Education in Professional Psychology.

The 854 students who participated in the survey weren't looking up all their clients — they reported conducting Internet searches on about 17 percent of the 13,582 clients they'd seen in the previous year. Students reported searching to confirm addresses and telephone numbers, glean insight into clients' personal lives or investigate issues that arose in therapy, such as questionable client reports. Interestingly, 67 percent of students who conducted such searches said it is always or usually unacceptable to do so, the research found.

Although students reported that about 82 percent of clients they searched were aware of the searches, researchers were unsure whether this consent had been obtained before or after the search had occurred, or even if this statistic reflects over-reporting by students.

Ethics experts agree that client searches should be undertaken with caution after informed consent. You should never look up a client simply because you are curious, says Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD, deputy director and director of adjudication of APA's Ethics Office. Rather, you should have a clear therapeutic goal, such as verifying information if there is a risk of a client hurting himself or others, or to better understand an issue a client reports. But, she says, even these types of situations would be rare. And, she emphasizes, you should engage in an informed consent process so that the client knows what to expect.

Looking up clients online presents several practical problems as well, says the study's lead author David DiLillo, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. For starters, information found online is often outdated or inaccurate. And, if you do find something therapeutically relevant, "do you divulge it at risk of betraying the trust of the client?" DiLillo asks. There are no easy answers to that question, he says, and it's best to avoid the issue altogether by getting clients' full consent before Googling.

—S. Dembling