Online Therapy: Review of Relevant Definitions,
Debates, and Current Empirical Support
Aaron B. Rochlen
University of Texas, Austin
Jason S. Zack
University of Miami, Coral Gables
Warren Shepell Consultants
The current article reviews the most recent literature addressing the defi-
nitions, ethical considerations, and potential strengths and limitations of
online therapy. In addition, a framework is provided for how to conceptu-
alize and categorize different aspects of online therapy for research pur-
poses. Relevant studies of both online and face-to-face therapy as well as
suggestions for future research are outlined. © 2004 Wiley Periodicals,
Inc. J Clin Psychol
Keywords: Internet psychotherapy; online psychotherapy
The integration of technology with the practice of psychotherapy has arguably been one
of the most vigorously debated topics among mental health professionals within the last
15 years. Some of the more frequently noted aspects of this debate include precise defi-
nitions, ethical considerations, regulation and training, and the benefits and potential
challenges associated with the practice. While these discussions and debates continue in
Aaron B. Rochlen is an assistant professor in counseling psychology in the Department of Educational Psy-
chology at the University of Texas. Jason S. Zack is an independent behavioral science consultant and an
adjunct assistant professor at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL. Cedric Speyer is the Clinical
Manager of E-Counseling for Warren Shepell Consultants Corporation. We are grateful to Emily Hall, Lee
Land, Jessica Layton, and Paula Requeijo for their assistance reviewing earlier manuscripts.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Aaron B. Rochlen, Educational Psychology,
University of Texas, 1 University Station–D5800, Austin, TX 78712; e-mail: email@example.com.
JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY © 2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/jclp.10263
the academic and popular literature, one point of agreement is that online mental health
service delivery is under way and is likely to expand in the future (Norcross, Hedges, &
Prochaska, 2002). In the current article, we will review the most critical aspects of online
therapy and overview the current state of relevant research.
Defining Internet Therapy
We define online therapy as any type of professional therapeutic interaction that makes
use of the Internet to connect qualified mental health professionals and their clients.We
use the term “therapy” as the public defines it, in a broad, generic sense. For the purposes
of this article, an online therapist is defined as any qualified mental health professional
who is using the Internet as a medium for practice. The exact definitions of “online
therapy” or “online therapist” are still in flux and are a source of debate. As we use them,
the terms are not specific to a particular theoretical or technical approach nor are they
limited to practitioners with a particular level of training or licensure.
Importantly, our review of the literature and research will not be exhaustive of all
Internet-facilitated mental health services. For one, we will not be discussing the topic of
“telehealth” or “telepsychiatry,” which typically includes therapeutic interactions con-
ducted via closed-circuit television or satellite (e.g., Glueckauf et al., 2002). These meth-
ods are generally only available to those in medical or research institutions whereas
“online therapy” is available to any client with a computer and Internet connection. In
addition, we will not be discussing the literature pertaining to the use of Internet-
facilitated support groups and discussion forums. Although the evidence for the use of
these outlets has been positive (Houston, Cooper, & Ford, 2002; Huws, Jones, & Ingle-
dew, 2001; Page et al., 2000), we have decided to focus our review on the literature and
research specifically targeting the practice of online therapy as conducted on an individ-
ual basis with a mental health professional.
The Practice of Online Therapy
Online therapy is a relatively recent development when contrasted with the long history
of therapists delivering treatment via letters and telephone (e.g., Haas, Benedict, & Kobos,
1996; Padach, 1984; Wiederhold, Wiederhold, Jang, & Kim, 2000). Today, the majority
of online therapy takes place via e-mail (Stofle, 2001). E-mail is “asynchronous,” mean-
ing that communication does not take place in “real time,” but rather whenever the par-
ticipants have a chance to respond to one another. Some therapists use full-service Web
sites that provide secure message and credit card processing options. Other therapists
simply exchange standard e-mail messages with clients. Online psychotherapists have
developed a variety of pricing arrangements including flat fees for standard message
lengths, by-the-minute charges for time spent replying, or package deals for a set number
of e-mail. Less common is the practice of synchronous online therapy that takes place in
real time, often using free, chat-based interfaces (e.g., AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ,
etc.). As high-speed Internet connections become more prevalent, an increasing number
of therapists are offering videoconference sessions using a broad range of available soft-
ware and programs.
Online therapy occurs in a variety of formats. It is provided as stand-alone service,
but also is used as an adjunct to traditional face-to-face clinical work (Yager, 2001).
Mental health professionals are finding many interesting ways of integrating online ser-
vices into their work. Finally, it should be noted that mental health professionals have
turned to the Internet to provide a variety of services, including online testing (Barak &
2Journal of Clinical Psychology
English, 2002), career counseling (Boer, 2001), and information-resource Web sites for
consumers (Grohol, 1999). Although these are undoubtedly used in conjunction with
online therapy, a discussion of these uses is beyond the scope of this article.
In reviewing the literature, it is clear that there are some authors and organizations who
strongly favor or oppose the practice of online therapy. Other authors take a more objec-
tive perspective in reviewing the possible advantages and challenges as well as the cir-
cumstances and types of clients that seem to be a good match for online therapy (e.g.,
Alleman, 2002; Barak, 1999; Maheu & Gordon, 2000; Stofle, 2001). It is important to
reexamine why therapists and clients choose to engage in online counseling, and why
skeptics rally against the practice. Therefore, we will overview the more commonly cited
benefits and challenges associated with the practice (see also Childress, 1998).
Convenience and Increased Access
One of the most frequently cited benefits of online therapy is convenience and increased
access for both clients and therapists. Online therapy also has the potential to serve
people with limited mobility, time restrictions, and limited access to mental health ser-
vices. Besides people living in remote locations or areas that lack access to an appropriate
therapist, there are people working, traveling, and relocating in countries where they
would not consult a mental health professional due to language barriers. People who are
physically disabled, or their caretakers, represent another group with significant barriers
to visiting a psychotherapist. In addition, potential consumers who feel stigmatized by
the counseling process may be more likely to seek help online if they feel the initial
shame is diminished when they are not in the therapist’s physical presence (Mitchell &
Disinhibition and Internalization
The disinhibiting effect of online communication has been discussed extensively by observ-
ers of Internet behavior (Joinson, 1998). In the context of online therapy, disinhibition
can encourage therapeutic expression and self-reflection (Suler, 2002b). Since the pro-
cess circumvents a client’s overt persona, there are few, if any, social masks to remove,
and clients tend to “cut to the chase” of core issues. Some online therapists report anec-
dotally that relating through text-based self-disclosure can have the effect of inducing a
high degree of intimacy and honesty from the first exchange of e-mail. At the same time,
the power differential can be diminished, as both parties become co-authors of client
insights. To this end, the presenting problem can be externalized while the helper is being
internalized. Both these time-honored therapeutic values are naturally enhanced by the
medium and the closeness/distance of those engaged in it. The client can always (even
years hence) re-read, rehearse, and reinforce the solutions and resolutions contained in
The Zone of Reflection
Online therapy communications may have the potential advantage of enhanced self-
reflection and ownership of the therapeutic process gained through the act of writing.
Online Therapy 3
Once ongoing contact between client and therapist has been established, there is an oppor-
tunity for both parties to enter what Suler (2002b) called the “zone of reflection.” For
example, in an asynchronous e-mail exchange, the normal process of therapy is mediated
by the text, allowing both writers to pay close attention to their own process while still
engaged in a dialogue. There also may be an enhanced sense of emotional containment,
as the client is able to set the pace, tone, volume, and parameters of self-disclosure (Suler,
Writing is Therapeutic
The contemplative process of writing about one’s problems or conflicts may in and of
itself be therapeutic for some clients (Murphy & Mitchell, 1998). In fact, Pennebaker
(1997) provided empirical evidence that writing about emotional experiences is generally
helpful. This research can logically be extended to a possible advantage of online therapy
practice. As one online practitioner observed, “In an in-person session, you may talk for
an hour and not get to the heart of the matter. In contrast, an online therapy client may sit
in silence for an hour and then say more in one typed line than she has ever revealed to
Telepresence and Transference
When conditions on both sides of the dialogue enhance the advantages described earlier,
then the text-based bond may allow the client and therapist to experience “telepresence.”
This is the feeling (or illusion) of being in someone’s presence without sharing any
immediate physical space (Fink, 1999). Some online therapy supporters claim that text-
only talk carries clients past the distracting, superficial aspects of a person’s existence
and connects the person more directly to the other’s psyche (Suler, 2002a).
Hypertextuality and Multimedia
Another advantage of online therapy is the ability to use the power of the Internet to feed
relevant supplementary material to clients quickly and easily. Links to informational Web
sites, video clips, documents, and assessment tools are readily supplied via all online
therapy modalities. Whereas traditional therapy takes place in the therapist’s office, lim-
iting the therapist to whatever resources he or she has on the bookshelf, online therapy
always takes place in a context with limitless resources (Grohol, 2000).
One frequently noted challenge to the process of online therapy is the lack of visual cues.
There is no access to the nonverbal behaviors (besides reported ones) that are undeniably
important ingredients in the counseling process. This limitation may rule out highly expe-
riential therapeutic approaches that necessitate in-person presence (Alleman, 2002).
In addition, online therapy creates a potential for misunderstanding in the absence of
spontaneous clarification. Clients with poor ego strength or paranoid tendencies may
4Journal of Clinical Psychology
suffer from the loss of reassuring visual and auditory cues. For therapists lacking appro-
priate training in text-based communication, important information about the client may
remain “between the lines,” with the real issues evading assessment. The increased room
for error in online assessment makes traditional diagnosis virtually impossible and limits
the clinician to making provisional hypotheses (Childress, 1998).
Another technical challenge is that online therapy conducted by e-mail, for instance, is
asynchronous and has a built-in time delay altering the nature of the counseling process.
Clients may wonder about the meaning of unexplained delays in a therapist’s response.
Ultimately, although time delay can be good (time to think about and digest responses),
it also can increase anxiety, leading to what Suler (2002a) called the “black hole
Both therapist and client must be reasonably good writers and typists, and need to be
computer literate to manage the medium (Stofle, 2001; Zack, 2002). The effectiveness of
online therapy could be lost on those not comfortable expressing themselves in writing.
The medium appears best suited to those who value written self-expression and have the
creative independence it takes to hold up their end of the written dialogue (Mitchell &
Another debatable concern noted about online therapy relates to how therapists deal with
crisis. Some authors have suggested there are significant problems that can surface when
a client becomes suicidal/homicidal or the therapist is otherwise concerned about the
client’s safety (Mitchell & Murphy, 1998). These authors note that there can be no cer-
tainty of an immediate e-mail response from the therapist, so the ability to reliably deal
with crisis is challenging, if not impossible. In contrast, Fenichel et al. (2002) concluded
that there is no evidence suggesting online therapy cannot be done with clients in crisis
nor is it more difficult in locating a client in online therapy compared to telephone hotline
Technology could lead some therapists to adopt a “carte blanche” approach to the indis-
criminate crossing of cultures, time zones, and social systems. If it appears a therapeutic
relationship is prone to conflict of interest, misunderstanding, or compromises the cli-
ent’s needs, then ease of access may prove to be a secondary consideration.
Verifying clients’ identities can be a challenge for online therapy. This is another reason
why professional online therapy often makes identifying and emergency contact infor-
mation a prerequisite for intake. Most Web sites require a password before the client can
access the Web-site’s interactive communication system (Childress, 1998).
Online Therapy 5
Another common concern is the confidentiality of communications and client records.
Without special precautions, there are a number of key security issues in the process of
online counseling (Zack, 2004). Technology has the potential to keep client records more
secure than conventional systems, but without awareness of Internet protocols and utili-
zation of encryption solutions, online therapists may inadvertently increase the risk of
divulging sensitive information (Grohol, 1999).
Legal and Ethical Issues
The challenges of online therapy lead many critics to argue about legal and ethical con-
cerns associated with the delivery of mental health services via the Internet. Opponents
worry about licensure issues related to doing therapy across jurisdictional boundaries,
legal responsibility in the event of a crisis, and the appropriateness of client anonymity,
among other concerns. Although an extensive discussion of these issues is beyond the
scope of this article, we would stress that online therapy is being conducted throughout
the world, and many of these issues (especially pertaining to licensing) are culture- or
nation-specific. For more on the legal and ethical issues associated with Internet therapy,
readers are referred to other sources (e.g., Bloom, 1998; Heinlen, Welfel, Richmond, &
Rak, 2003; Koocher & Morray, 2000).
Who Is Appropriate for Online Therapy?
One way to mitigate the challenges of online therapy is to carefully screen clients and to
work only with those who will be able to benefit from the service (Suler et al., 2001). The
expanded base of potential clients for online therapy brings up the clinical limitations of
who can and cannot be effectively treated. Stofle (2001) suggested that online therapy is
ideal for clients in outpatient settings, and possibly even intensive outpatient settings.
However, it is not appropriate for patients who are hospitalized or who have severe
psychiatric disorders. Issues and problems potentially best suited for online therapy include
personal growth and fulfillment; adult children of alcoholics; anxiety disorders, including
agoraphobia and social phobias; and body image and shame/guilt issues. Clients not
appropriate for online therapy include those who have suicidal ideation, thought dis-
orders, borderline personality disorder, or unmonitored medical issues (Stofle, 2001).
Just as not every client is appropriate for online therapy, it also is important to
consider which therapists should be providing online services. At the very least, online
therapists should be comfortable with computers and communicating via text. Although
the personality attributes of successful online counselors have not been studied, we expect
that the best online therapists are strong visualizers with an ability to be flexible, patient,
and creative. Of course, the most important factor is that ethical online therapists acquire
additional specialized training in the practice of online therapy, either through self-study
or formal workshops and seminars (Anthony & Goss, 2003; Hsiung, 2003). They also
may be likely to participate in professional organizations devoted to the practice of online
mental health and telemedicine.
Ultimately, whether the benefits of online therapy can overcome the challenges is an
empirical question. However, to date, few empirical studies have directly investigated
6Journal of Clinical Psychology
these benefits and challenges or the appeal, process, and outcomes of online therapy.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation for this shortage of research is due to the newness
of the practice, particularly when contrasted with face-to-face psychotherapy. In addi-
tion, as alluded to earlier, the application of therapy provided via the Internet is still a
process being debated (Alleman, 2002; Fink, 1999). Hence, the process of operational-
izing the variables of investigation for research purposes can be particularly difficult.
Finally, another challenge associated with this research involves finding clients and ther-
apists to participate in research. The majority of process and outcome studies in the
broader psychotherapy research area have used clients and therapists at counseling cen-
ters, community mental health centers, and hospitals. These outlets allow for more con-
trolled settings where procedures can be standardized. Currently, few of these centers are
conducting online therapy services, making it difficult for therapists and clients to be
recruited for research purposes.
Fortunately, some research has been conducted, and more is in progress. This spe-
cialty area has attracted the interest of researchers from a range of disciplines including
psychology, computer science, and communications. Ultimately, this multidisciplinary
focus will help to address such questions as: Does online therapy work? Exactly how
does online therapy differ from more conventional face-to-face therapy? Is online ther-
apy effective or appealing to populations that could potentially benefit from the conve-
nience of the services? What factors (therapist, client, or process variables) contribute to
either successful or unsuccessful outcomes in online therapy?
Before establishing a framework for addressing online therapy research, it seems
useful to differentiate between the various components of online therapy. Hill and
Williams (2000) provided a helpful classification for individual, face-to-face, and per-
sonal social therapy by distinguishing among input variables, process, and outcome. “Input
variables” reflect traits of the clients, therapists (e.g., attitudes, demographics, expecta-
tions, etc.), and setting (physical arrangement of the space in which therapy is being
provided). “ Process” pertains to overt/covert feelings as well as thoughts and behaviors
that both clients and therapists report as present during therapy sessions. Finally, “out-
come” refers to changes that occur directly or indirectly as a result of participation in
Due to the debate regarding perceptions of online counseling (Barak, 1999; King &
Moreggi, 1998; Murphy & Mitchell, 1998; Tait, 1999), it is important for researchers to
initiate empirically based assessment measures of the general attitudes and perceptions
related to online therapy. Studies addressing attitudes toward online therapy can provide
pertinent and pivotal information regarding the population traits of those utilizing this
particular help service. Rochlen, Beretvas, and Zack (in press) conducted a thorough
instrument-development project that addressed preliminary validation of measured atti-
tudes toward online and face-to-face counseling services. Factor analyses of the Online
Counseling Attitude Scale (OCAS) and the corresponding Face-to-Face Counseling Atti-
tude Scale (FCAS) yielded similar two-factor structures, which assess perceived levels of
value and discomfort with the two respective counseling modalities. Overall, respondents
expressed more favorable evaluations of face-to-face than online counseling (although
none of the clients had ever engaged in online counseling). Interestingly, these authors
did not find any significant gender differences between attitudes toward online counsel-
ing services. This was contrasted with the finding that women expressed more favorable
Online Therapy 7
attitudes toward face-to-face counseling services than men, a point consistent with other
studies addressing attitudinal gender differences (Fischer & Farina, 1995).
Chang, Chang, and Kim (2002) examined online mental health information-seeking
behaviors and attitudes in a large sample of college students. Their findings suggest that
individuals used the Internet to seek information about mental health significantly more
often than they sought help for a personal problem. The college students were neutral
about using the Internet to gather mental health information and had somewhat negative
attitudes toward seeking help from online groups, e-mail counseling, and online psycho-
An additional study conducted by Chang and Chang (2003) investigated online help-
seeking attitudes of Asian American and Asian international college students. Similar to
results obtained by Rochlen et al. (in press), Asian American and Asian international
college students had less favorable attitudes toward seeking online professional psycho-
logical help than they did toward seeking face-to-face professional psychological help.
In all three of these studies, authors provided similar explanations for what might
underlie less positive attitudes toward online therapy services as contrasted with face-to-
face therapy. Most notably, the authors pointed to the fact that participants might be more
familiar with face-to-face therapy services than their online counterparts. In addition, the
authors suggested that frequently cited ethical and logistical concerns might be contrib-
uting to negative attitudes (Barak, 1999; King & Moreggi, 1998; Murphy & Mitchell,
1998). Although it was emphasized in both studies that online counseling attitudes were
indeed less favorable than those expressed toward face-to-face counseling, they were not
necessarily negative attitudes.
In our review of the literature, we found no studies that attempted to explain the
sources accounting for the differential attitudes. In addition, with the exception of the
Chang et al. (2002) study, no research has been initiated concerning how different pop-
ulations perceive the value of online therapy services. This line of research seems espe-
cially important to conduct with populations that could benefit from the convenience of
the service. For example, it would be interesting to examine the attitudes toward online
counseling within samples from disabled populations, rural populations (with little or no
access to face-to-face services), or people who stigmatize traditional counseling services.
Another critical area of research relevant to input variables involves client expecta-
tions. Studies of face-to-face therapy have provided useful information describing the
relationship between expectations of therapy, attitudes toward counseling, willingness to
utilize help services, and preferences for counseling styles (Constantine & Arorash, 2001;
Leong, Wagner, & Kim, 1995; Lyddon & Adamson, 1992).
Studies addressing similar areas of research in online therapy seem especially impor-
tant. Expectations of both online and face-to-face therapy (accurate and otherwise) will
naturally fluctuate. Yet, the lack of familiarity and relative novelty of online therapy
might lead to particularly inaccurate expectations of the process. Hence, there is a need
for studies measuring the accuracy of client expectations toward online counseling as
well as how accurate expectations are shaped by information about the services. Studies
in the broader psychotherapy literature have shown the efficacy of psychoeducational
interventions on help-seeking attitudes and the shaping of realistic expectations about the
process (Gonzalez, Tinsley, & Kreuder, 2002; Murstein, & Fontaine, 1993).
Another area of research relevant to input variables of online therapy that has not yet
been initiated involves preferences for various online therapy styles. This area of research,
in the larger psychotherapy literature, has yielded a wealth of information in terms of how
different types of clients (most frequently distinguished by race, gender, ethnicity, etc.)
express preferences toward different types of counseling styles and theoretical orientations
8Journal of Clinical Psychology
(Hanson, Claiborn, & Kerr, 1997; Heaven & Furnham, 1994; Wanigaratne & Barker,
1995; Wisch, Mahalik, Hayes, & Nutt, 1995).
Preference studies for online therapy may want to examine how different personality
traits (e.g., extroversion, introversion) and attitudes toward the service correlate to pref-
erences for different styles of online therapy. For example, people who feel highly stig-
matized by therapy or who struggle with intimacy may express preferences toward online
therapy where no direct visual cues (i.e., synchronous e-mail chat where the therapist is
not visible) are involved.
A final research area relevant to input variables involves training considerations. In
the larger psychotherapy literature, the impact of pre-therapy training has yielded posi-
tive results. Research has shown that participants who received pre-therapy training report
more realistic expectations of therapy, better attendance, and an overall better under-
standing of the therapeutic process than those who do not receive training (Coleman &
Kaplan, 1990; Deane, Spicer, & Leathem, 1992; Weinstein, 1988). In extending this
research into the area of online therapy, it may be important for training efforts to care-
fully explain the various modalities of online therapy. This would include an explanation
of how each type of therapy is conducted and the advantages and disadvantages of dif-
ferent methods. Moreover, studies may want to provide opportunities for clients to prac-
tice using different technology and to learn how certain characters or “emoticons” (faces,
symbols, etc.) are used to express emotions (Wolf, 2000).
Regarding outcome studies, a range of different methodologies have been employed, all
with the intention of evaluating the efficacy of online therapy. Most common have been
studies aimed at evaluating whether online therapy interventions lead to clinical improve-
ments overall and as compared to wait-list control groups. In general, the results of these
studies have yielded relatively consistent and encouraging findings in support of online
therapy. More specifically, significant improvements in symptom relief after participat-
ing in different online therapy interventions have been reported by participants experi-
encing a range of clinical concerns including panic disorders (Klein & Richards, 2001),
eating disorders (Robinson & Serfaty, 2001), and posttraumatic stress and grief (Lange
et al., 2000; Lange, van de Ven, Schrieken, & Emmelkamp, 2001).
Studies using a qualitative design also appear to be a promising methodology in
assessing the potential benefits of online therapy. Jedlicka and Jennings (2001) analyzed
the outcomes of 11 couples who participated in solution-focused marital therapy as con-
ducted via the Internet. Couples recruited from a university electronic mailing list com-
pleted an e-mail-based therapy with a trained therapist for a duration between 1 and 14
weeks. The authors concluded that the online-only therapy was effective in a similar
manner to that which has been described for face-to-face therapy couples. The encour-
aging findings were particularly evident for couples who seemed actively engaged in the
problem-solving, cognitive focus of the therapy.
Finally, a few studies have directly incorporated into the methodology direct com-
parisons between online therapy interventions with face-to-face therapeutic approaches.
These projects are especially important in furthering the online therapy outcome litera-
ture as they address not only the question of whether online therapy works but how this
help-seeking option contrasts with therapy as practiced in a face-to-face context. In a
preliminary study, Cohen and Kerr (1998) assigned 24 clients to one session of either
face-to-face or computer-mediated counseling. Counselors in both conditions followed
a similar format that included identifying, exploring, and working through the client’s
Online Therapy 9
presenting concern. Upon finishing the session, clients completed measures evaluating
the counselor, the session, and their anxiety level. Clients in both conditions showed
equivalent decreases in expressed anxiety and similar ratings regarding the session and
the counselor’s expertise, attractiveness, and trustworthiness.
Day and Schneider (2002) conducted a similar study with a larger sample and greater
external validity. Eight community clients were recruited and assigned to one of three
conditions representing three different modes of psychotherapy: face-to-face, real-time
videoconference, and two-way audio (similar to telephone communication). Participants
completed five sessions of therapy and completed measures of the working alliance,
session outcome, and general satisfaction with the sessions. In general, the conclusions
supported the use of online therapy. The only significant difference between the groups
on any of the process or outcome variables seemed in favor of the non-face-to-face
conditions. Clients who were not in the face-to-face condition reported higher scores on
an index of client participation that involved clients’ activity level, initiative, trust, spon-
taneity, and disinhibition. The results of the outcome analyses determined no significant
differences and generally positive findings among all three treatment groups.
Collectively, these preliminary studies have yielded encouraging data regarding the
efficacy of online counseling. Yet, given the small samples sizes of the reviewed studies
(Six of the seven studies had 25 or fewer participants.), considerably more research is
needed. As has been stressed in the face-to-face counseling literature (Wampold, 2000),
future outcome studies should consider using a range of outcome measures aimed at
assessing different aspects of a therapeutic outcome. For example, researchers should
consider using measures evaluating such factors as client-rated satisfaction, insight, and
depth of session in addition to more commonly used measures of symptom relief. More-
over, carefully designed outcome studies are needed using populations that have been
outlined in the literature as potentially being well-suited for online therapy (e.g., clients
in rural populations, participants who stigmatize therapy, etc.).
To date, few studies have focused on investigating the process of online therapy. One
notable example is a study by Mallen and Vogel (2002) that employed a creative meth-
odology whereby counselors were informed they would be meeting with a client in a
synchronous chat environment for one session. In reality, clients were confederates informed
to communicate a fairly standardized presenting concern for a college-aged student. The
results of this project demonstrated that counselors were able to accurately assess the
clients’ presenting problems and felt generally satisfied with the process of treatment.
The authors also noted that the overall levels of experience and familiarity with the use of
technology was particularly low.
Mallen and Vogel (2002) also analyzed the scripts of the transcripts for the sessions
and compared them to similar single-session data (Day & Schneider, 2002). Client and
therapist comments were coded using Hill and O’Brien’s (1999) coding system. Coun-
selors in the face-to-face condition offered more approval, reassurance, and inter-
pretations, challenged the client more often, asked more questions, and focused more on
immediacy issues than counselors in the online condition. In addition, there was a sig-
nificant difference in the amount of words used in each condition, with more words being
used in the face-to-face condition than the online condition.
An additional study addressing an important area within the process of online ther-
apy was recently published by Cook and Doyle (2002). These authors evaluated differ-
ences in the client ratings of the working alliance ratings between a small sample (n⫽15)
10 Journal of Clinical Psychology
of online therapy clients with normative data from a comparable face-to-face counseling
sample. All participants completed a minimum of three sessions of online counseling as
conducted via e-mail or chat with therapists trained in online therapy. As predicted, the
authors found comparable (and relatively high) evaluations of the working alliance for
the online sample using the frequently applied Working Alliance Inventory (Horvath &
Greenberg, 1989). More specifically, significantly higher scores were observed for the
online sample for the overall composite index and the goal setting subscale. Equivalent
scores were observed on the client’s ratings of the therapeutic bond and tasks involved in
therapy between the online therapy and face-to-face normative data.
Expanding upon these promising preliminary studies, several additional areas of
process research can be outlined. First, further research efforts should be initiated to
address how online therapy is evaluated when conducted by therapists with different
training levels and theoretical orientations. For example, it may be that therapists who
adhere to more structured theoretical orientations (e.g., solution-focused therapy, Rational
Emotive Behavioral Therapy [REBT], etc.) have greater ease in conducting therapy online.
This may be contrasted with therapists who adhere to models placing a greater emphasis
on the interpersonal dynamics of the face-to-face interaction (e.g., psychoanalytic
Second, there is a considerable need to investigate several critical phases, inter-
ventions, or processes of therapy. Some examples that might be particularly relevant for
online therapy include therapist interpretation (Hoglend, 1996; Piper, Joyce, McCallum,
& Azim, 1993), self-disclosure (Edwards & Murdock, 1994; Knox, Hess, Petersen, &
Hill, 1997), confrontation (Miller, Benefield, & Tonigan, 1993; Olson & Claiborn, 1990),
compliance with homework assignments (Conoley, Padula, Payton, & Daniels, 1994;
Mahrer, Gagnon, Fairweather, Boulet, & Herring, 1994), and countertransference and
transference responses (Gelso, Hill, Mohr, Rochlen, & Zack, 1999).
In addition, researchers need to continue to investigate how the text-based bond
formed in online therapy compares and contrasts with the in-person therapeutic alliance.
This variable has consistently been demonstrated to be important in predicting therapy
outcome (see Horvath & Symonds, 1991, for meta-analysis).
Limitations and Conclusion
Clearly, research in this area remains in its beginning stages and is hampered by several
significant limitations. First, in addition to the general challenges of conducting process–
outcome research (Hill & Williams, 2000; Wampold, 2000), the ambiguity, lack of con-
trol, and debate over precise definitions of online therapy make this research specialization
particularly difficult. Second, few researchers to date have considered cross-cultural issues
and differences that surface in online therapy. Relevant cross-cultural factors need to be
considered both in regard to differences between clients and therapists and in terms of
rules, regulations, guidelines, and accessibility to technology that exist among users (or
potential users) of online therapy in different countries. Third, caution must be exercised
in generalizing the results of the research that has been conducted due to limitations
including the use of small homogenous samples, lack of control and wait-list conditions,
and the use of mostly inexperienced therapists.
Finally, it is important to note that while there have been frequent discussions of the
benefits and the challenges of online therapy, few research projects have directly tested
whether these benefits and challenges are perceived as such by practitioner and end users
of online therapy (i.e., therapists and clients). Hence, the benefits and challenges noted
Online Therapy 11
earlier and in other articles (e.g., Alleman, 2002; Barak & English, 2002) remain largely
based on anecdotal evidence with limited empirical data supporting their validity.
In lieu of these limitations, a few tentative conclusions can be generated as a useful
guide to prompt future studies. It seems that the general public continues to express
significant reservations about their willingness to utilize online counseling services, above
and beyond attitudes expressed toward psychotherapy in general. However, studies address-
ing the process and outcome of online therapy when contrasted with face-to-face therapy
have yielded more positive findings, suggesting few differences in the process and out-
come of these different avenues for help. Considering the possible benefits of online
therapy, particularly in reaching populations that might not otherwise seek help, more
research in all areas of this practice is strongly recommended.
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