The need to provide online psychological services induced by the pandemic and the underestimation of ethical and legal risks by psychologists

The need to provide online psychological services induced by the pandemic and the underestimation of ethical and legal risks by psychologists

The social changes imposed by the pandemic, together with a generally low digital competence / awareness, have prompted very quickly to provide online psychological services that do not comply with the code of ethics and the legal requirements required by the GDPR, the European data protection regulation.

The COVID-19 emergency has dramatically changed many daily habits that we had and accelerated some processes that would hardly have recorded such a massive diffusion and pervasiveness. One of these processes has undoubtedly been the online digitization of many activities that were already potentially feasible even long before the pandemic, but which the need imposed by physical social distancing made quickly desirable if not even necessary.

Many of these activities have recorded a staggering increase in their implementation and digital integration because there has been a strong change in the perception of these alternative ways to traditional physical copresence. The thrust of this different perception towards digital was promoted by economic reasons and / or by the need to establish non-physical social interaction anyway.

Carrying out these activities through digital web technology has passed very quickly from being generally perceived, before the COVID-19 emergency, which modalities are potentially feasible, but also possibly to be avoided due to the combination of general distrust of the effectiveness attributed to new technologies. communication and awareness of the need to acquire specific knowledge and skills necessary to manage these contexts, to be considered, during the pandemic period, as the only possible option for interaction and implementation of the activity.

This dynamic that has seen the dramatic general transition of the perceived (in less than a month) from a mixture of skepticism and concern to the only (and therefore suddenly priority) way of carrying out the professional activity, has characterized for example any educational and didactic context as well as almost all the psychological support services during the pandemic.

I will now focus precisely on this context characterized by the psychological services provided through digital web technologies (video calls, messages, emails, etc.).

I consider this specific paradigmatic context of how the social changes imposed by the pandemic, together with a generally low digital competence / awareness, have prompted very quickly new professional practices not adhering to the code of ethics (in this case of psychologists) and the legal requirements required by the GDPR, the European data protection regulation.

Collaborating for years with Dr. Marlene Maheu, an American psychologist and pioneer of the telepsychology sector who directs the working group dedicated to this topic of the APA (American Psychological Association), and, making with her a document that has served to define the current guidelines on American telepsychology (Agnoletti & Maheu, 2013), I am strongly convinced that the recent phenomenon induced by the pandemic on the professional practices of psychologists should also draw the attention of the institutions not so much to punish incorrect behavior, but to provide more solutions practical, easy and safe to the community of professional psychologists and therefore to their clients / patients.

The particular psychosocial phenomenon in question consists in the underestimation of the legal / deontological risks perceived by the professionals (both towards the professionals themselves and relatively to their users) due to the specific combination of these factors:

Individually these specific factors may already be a sufficient condition to trigger the phenomenon of underestimation of the perceived risks deriving from practices that do not comply with one’s own code of ethics, but in general these factors are probably present in various forms within the population of professional psychologists.

Economic motivation is the factor that undoubtedly characterizes the most freelance psychologists who, with the introduction of pandemic containment measures, have generally recorded a significant decrease in their income (already particularly low compared to other professional categories) and for the sharp decrease in customers / patients willing to physically go to them than for the institutional invitation to provide services, possibly online, to better protect the professionals themselves as well as of course their users.

The fact of having to offer their services almost exclusively in digital mode displaced most of the freelance clinical psychologists who found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having / being able to use only this technological form to ensure the survival of their economic activity in the absence, however effective specific competence (as required for some time by your code of ethics).

Relatively the factor of low digital competence it must be said that particularly in Italy, compared to other countries, telepsychology has so far (or rather until the current pandemic) recorded less attention, probably due to a lack of solid general culture regarding digitization.

Even in the absence of statistical data and findings, it is very unrealistic to think that the population of clinical psychologists has acquired telepsychology skills in such a short time (less than a month) in the almost total absence, which is still found, among other things, specific courses related to these particular topics.

As proof of this, there are still no institutional training courses on this topic (even private ones are very few) and in general the digital modality is (or has been up to the current pandemic) perceived with much skepticism and distrust by the community of clinical psychologists despite the ten-year international scientific literature denies these preconceptions (Typical acts Commission, observatory and protection of the profession, 2017; Hilty et al., 2013; Slone et al. 2012; Turgoose et al., 2018; Varker et al., 2019).

With regard to the dilution of liability effect and the conformism effect, the fact that especially on the web the offer of online psychological services is widespread through, for example, video call platforms that are already very popular, does not automatically make them respect the code ethical or GDPR regulation.

It is sufficient to carefully read the contractual documents that are signed with the companies that provide these IT services to realize that the processing of personal data presents at least doubts regarding the compatibility both with respect to the code of ethics and the GDPR.

In all likelihood, the fact of using widespread platforms or apps both within the general population and widespread within the community of psychologists (including institutions) facilitates decision-making processes which tend to underestimate the legal and deontological risks deriving from the use of these technologies.

Even today, if the words “video call” or “video conference” and “GDPR” cross in any search engine, very few companies appear that clearly offer information to meet the criteria required by the GDPR.

It should be remembered that, in case of doubt in deciding whether or not to use a platform or app that meets the criteria expressed by the code of ethics or the GDPR or not, the ethically (and ethically and legally) correct choice should always be that of not using those technological tools whose implications and risks are unclear for both the professional and customers / patients.

The principle just described is also formally codified within the GDPR which on the one hand does not tolerate ignorance regarding the misuse of the communication technology used (the law does not allow ignorance, in Latin “ignorantia legis non excusat”) and by the the other, through the principle of “accountability”, empowers the data controller to manage and actively document its decision-making processes.

Among other things, it is particularly interesting from a psychological point of view that this dynamic of de-empowerment is a well-known competence of social psychology (for example, see the famous experiments of Ash, Milgram and the principle of social proof of Cialdini ) therefore patrimony of all psychologists.

In a nutshell, it is therefore highly desirable to grow digital, technological and legal / ethical culture within the community of psychologists (both freelancers and non-professionals) in order to reduce the legal and compensatory risks deriving from the unprofessional use of the treatment of data of their clients.