Ethical Issues in the Internet Age

Pamela Harmell, Ph.D. and Anthony Zamudio, Ph.D.


Prevalence of Social Networking Site Use

Internet and social networking have dramatically changed our culture.  According to Internet World Stats, 22% of the world’s population and 73% of the U.S. population are Internet users (Internet World Stats, 2008).  For psychologists and those in training, the Internet has created new dilemmas along with new ease communicating with colleagues, networking with others, and sharing pertinent information openly (Lehavot, Barnett, & Powers, 2010).


Eighty-five percent of undergraduate and graduate students own a computer, while 72% check their e-mail at least once every day. Facebook has 900 million a month active users worldwide at the end of March 2012 (, July 19, 2012).


Prensky (2001) uses the term “Digital Natives” to describe those born into a world where the Internet is omnipresent; these natives are considered “bilingual,” fluently speaking the second language of communication by Internet.  “Digital Immigrants” are those who have needed to learn this new language and culture in order to converse effectively in today’s world.


Relevant Ethical Issues and Standards

The Introduction and Applicability section of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (“The Code”) of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2002) makes it clear that these standards apply only to one’s “scientific, educational, or professional roles” and not to their “purely private conduct” (APA, p. 1061). This section also notes that The Code applies “to these activities across a variety of contexts, such as in person, postal, telephone, Internet, and other electronic transmissions” (APA, p. 1061). 

Knowing how to use The Code is less clear in the Internet age.  Authors are revisiting the profession’s view of personal and professional roles as separate and distinct entities. Application of The Code is far more complicated, involving numerous challenges (see APA 4.01, 3.05, 2.01, 3.06, 3.08).  For example, providing clinical services via the Internet, posting personal information, and interfacing with clients and students via social networking and can create serious ethical questions.  The profession’s standard of care must keep up with developing technology.  What seems least clear is how The Code applies to posting personal information online, who may have access, appropriate use of searching online about clients, and clients’ access to the psychologists’ online personal social networking site. 

Experts recommend the following (Barnett, 2008):

1.     Make careful decisions about Internet “friends”

2.     Remember that once online, anything can be saved and printed

3.     Get permission prior to accessing client Internet information

4.     Create a professional Internet policy

References in this article may be obtained by request from the LACPA office: [email protected] or from the Ethics section of the LACPA Website,