This article (In-house or Plugged In? The Advantages and Drawbacks of Cyber-Counseling (Part I) by Marie Notcheva) originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.
As biblical counseling becomes more widespread (and the world becomes smaller, due to technology), more and more counseling centers are choosing to “specialize” in remote counseling. Let’s consider the case for and against counseling through video chat (or over the phone) and a few pointers to make sessions as profitable as possible.
Bringing the Counselor to You
The convenience of remote counseling is obvious – many believers do not live within driving distance of a church with a counseling ministry. One biblical counselor in the Midwest who specializes in cyber-counsel says, “One woman in a Western state lived on a ranch, and the closest church was 60 miles away. Although she and her husband were part of a church, when a counseling matter arose, it was hugely beneficial to be able to speak to me.” There are also times when counselees are prevented from getting to their appointments due to snowfall or other inclement weather, or due to being on vacation or on business trips. In addition, for the disabled or those prevented from going to church for geographical reasons, cyber-counseling is an advantage.
Desire for Anonymity
Even where access to a biblical counseling ministry may be available, in many cases, a believer will turn first to a search engine to seek information and/or counsel for a spiritual battle because of the anonymity of the Internet. In such cases, which I have experienced many times in my communication with eating-disordered women, my first suggestion is that a woman speak confidentially with her pastor (or pastor’s wife, in some cases.) The exhortation and accountability she needs to be truly transformed should be sought first in her local church – even though it is often more difficult to “come clean” about weaknesses to those who know us well. Furthermore, contacting an online counselor may be the first step a person can lead to getting connected to a church where he or she can grow.
Despite its many conveniences and advantages, there are some very real cautions to consider in cyber-counseling. One of the first things to consider is why the person is seeking cyber-counseling, especially if there is a church ministry or center with in-person counseling available to him or her. There are sometimes valid reasons, but it is also common for the counselee who isn’t as invested in the process to choose Skype over in-person counseling.
Lack of Accountability in Cyber-Counseling
For biblical counseling to be successful, the one receiving counsel must be committed to doing the hard work of biblical change. In the first session, the counselor must give hope, as well as obtain a commitment from the counselee to the process. We hold the counselee accountable and expect to see progress. When the counselee is not physically meeting with the counselor week after week, completed homework in hand, there is less motivation to do the assignments. Or sessions can be conveniently skipped because the counselee “forgot” to log on to Skype at a certain time. The ongoing accountability so necessary for counseling to be successful simply is harder in an online set-up.
“Halo Data” and Technical Limitations
When a counselee arrives for the first session, there is much information the counselor can observe about the individual and even about the problem for which the person is seeking help. Most of this “halo data” is completely lost when counseling remotely. Even with a webcam, the session is not as natural as it would be in person. The counselee can feel “poised,” almost as if performing, even in the absence of any technical difficulties (which can often interrupt a counseling session done by video conferencing).
Skype and e-mail can be used if the counselee is willing to take the process seriously, rather than just “vent” and disappear. In addition, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind for successful cyber-counseling encounters:
- Set a regular, definite time for counseling sessions and do not deviate from it. This will help the counselee view the sessions as “real counseling” and not just an opportunity to informally chat.
- Request that Personal Data Inventory forms be completed and either scanned or mailed back to you before you conduct the first counseling session. These contain vital information you need in order to ask the right data-gathering questions and set the agenda for counseling. Without them, the first session may turn into an informal chat session, which will set the tone for sessions to follow.
- If using a webcam, avoid setting it up in the living room or other high-traffic area of your home where children or pets may pass through. This will detract from the professional and calm atmosphere you need for effective counseling, and it will distract both of you.
- Assign homework and expect the counselee to complete it. Failure to do homework is a sure sign the person does not consider “virtual counseling” to be as serious as in-person sessions.
- Wherever possible, involve the counselee’s pastor in the counseling process. If you are counseling someone remotely, it is unlikely that you will be supervised by anyone in your church (or counseling center). It is even less likely that the counselee will be updating his pastor about what the two of you are discussing. If appropriate, ask permission to contact family members for their input into a situation.
- Be sure that the counselee’s spouse and pastor know that she is speaking to you, and that they know why. It is not necessary to share details with them about the case (with some exceptions, for example if the counselee threatens to commit suicide), but those closest to the counselee might need to know the “big picture.”
In Part II of this series, we will consider some case studies of successful cyber-counseling sessions when it was the only option available.
 Please see Chapters 4 and 5 of my book, Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age for a more in-depth look at the use of technology in biblical counseling.