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The internet is not your therapist.

This thought keeps bouncing through my mind this week as I consider the ramifications of social media and the shrinking of on-line privacy. It’s not your priest, rabbi, or pastor. It’s not a lawyer. The internet is not the place to go with information that you’d rather keep confidential.

The internet can create a false sense of intimacy and privacy. It’s funny when you think about it. Parents closely monitor where their children go in real life and on-line. They don’t always do a good job of thinking through what they do or say on-line.

A few years back I was spending time on an internet wellness community called Transformation.com. It was started by Bill Phillips, the originator of the Body-for-Life program. I’d used the program with great success, and like many BFLers, was interested to see what Bill’s new program would be. Transformation.com was not BFL. The site had a much greater focus on mindset, with workouts and nutrition taking on a secondary role. For real deep and meaningful transformations, you needed to get your mind right.

What alarmed me was the emphasis placed on opening up and revealing things which might be holding you back. There was a particular discussion which started up that just floored me. People were encouraged to reveal concealments, things which they’d been hiding from others which were holding them back. This is a variation of Alcoholics Anonymous step 5, where you reveal to another the exact nature of your wrongs.

I watched in horror as people stepped up and revealed things they had never discussed with others. These admissions ran the gamut from illegal drug use, to theft, to acts of violence against animals and people. People admitted to affairs, abortions, and then confessed that they’d never told their partners about these actions.

There was a very important element missing in these confessions. Because they occurred in a public discussion area, there was no confidentiality. None. Zip. Nada. The only protection these folks had was the site required a login to read forums. That’s it. When it was brought up that this may not be the best venue to discuss these things, the counter argument was that people in the forum would never betray the trust of other forum members.

Why do I focus on this? Because two years later those discussion forums are now open to the public. There’s no password required. Nothing stops you from wandering over there to read anything you chose. You can now wander over and republish blogs without the permission of the blogger. All you need to do is push the Facebook or Twitter button.

There was a good bit of peer pressure to post your deep, dark secrets. It was almost a contest with some folks to see who could come up with the best issue. Now that information is out there, with potentially identifying information which could allow the wrong people to find it. Privacy laws don’t help here. There’s no law which can undo the impact of the send button. Once the information is seen, you can’t unsee it.

If you do not want your kids to know about the wild partying you did in college, best not to go publishing that information in your blog. If you were addicted to drugs and don’t want employers to know that, then don’t go out there and discuss drug addiction and rehab. If you don’t want your insurance company to know that you dislocated your shoulder, then do not go discussing it in your Twitter feed.

If you need to share things which are holding you back, seek a professional with an obligation to protect your information. Remember that personal trainers, life coaches, gurus, and “doctors” without degrees or licenses to their name have no obligation to keep your information private. Do your homework. Take steps to protect yourself. Don’t assume that a website is going to keep your private information private.

Private online is not the same as private in real life. Remember, the internet is not your therapist.