Can sitting at home in your sweatpants and seeing a therapist through a screen really be as helpful as sitting with a therapist in their office? These days, you can do nearly everything online. Date, shop, get a prescription, take college courses. And now, you can even do therapy online. But the big question is, “Does online therapy work?” I get asked this question a lot, so I decided it was time to answer the question. “Does online therapy really work?” The answer might surprise you.
Skyping your therapist over your lunch break? Chatting from the comfort of your own home? It’s no surprise online therapy is appealing to people. And though it goes by a few different names, including teletherapy, video counseling, and distance therapy. Each of these labels is essentially describing the same thing. Doing therapy over the internet or phone, rather than sitting across from your therapist, in person.
In the last several years, we’ve seen an explosion in online therapy platforms. And though online therapy isn’t new, as therapists have been using it for years, we’re definitely seeing an increase in options. There are more services and providers. There are more ads and partnerships. And there are more conversations around whether or not online therapy really works.
You don’t have to look far to find opinions on the issue. But as a psychologist, I’m more interested in what the research has to say. What does the science tell us? Is seeing a therapist over your computer screen really as effective as seeing a therapist in person?
Well, according to the research, yes. Online therapy works. In fact, research shows that online therapy is similar in effectiveness to traditional, face to face therapy. Seeing a therapist from your desk, your couch, or your beach chair is helpful. As is seeing a therapist in their office, sitting on their couch. Both methods show positive outcomes and changes.
In addition, research suggests that people who do online therapy have similar levels of satisfaction to those who do traditional, face to face therapy. So whether you’re Skyping or seeing your therapist in person, you’re likely to have a similar level of satisfaction with your therapy experience. And if you’re wondering about your level of comfort in sharing through a screen versus opening up in person? Research shows similar levels of disclosure and comfort in sharing information between the two groups.
So whether you’re face to face, through a screen, across from one another, or on the phone, it doesn’t really matter where your therapist is. Or how you talk with them. Online therapy and traditional, face to face therapy have similar results. Both options are effective.
However, one small word of caution is warranted. Some online therapy platforms offer services exclusively through texting and messaging, meaning that you might never connect with your therapist using video or audio. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of research out there about therapy provided solely through texting and messaging. For this reason, we have to be careful to generalizing the positive findings above to messaging only platforms. Technology and options for communicating are changing, and the research still has to catch up.
Now maybe you’re left wondering, “Which method is right for me? Should I see a therapist in person or online?” And my answer to that is pretty simple. “It depends.” It depends on your needs and your schedule. It depends on your location and your resources. And it depends on your preference, your style, and your personality. For some people, it’s important to connect in person. For others, it feels more comfortable or convenient to talk online. The research is clear that both options are good options. So which is right for you depends on, well…you.
Also one quick note, because I anticipate I’ll get some questions about it. Last year, there was a huge controversy on YouTube regarding the BetterHelp platform. I addressed the controversy and some of my concerns in a video. (You can watch it here.) My issue then (and still) is mainly around transparency. People deserve to have accurate, up front information about options for treatment, as well as how referral programs and affiliate links work. In that video, several viewers asked about the effectiveness of online therapy. Look through the comment section of that video, and you’ll see that that I answer this question several times, with a similar, though much shorter response, to what I’m sharing today.
As a psychologist, I’m a firm believer in evidence-based care. This means that how I practice is backed by science. So I’m constantly looking to the research to guide my treatment and my perspective. And the research is clear; online therapy and traditional face to face therapy are both great options. They’re similar in effectiveness and client satisfaction, and they give people options.
It takes courage to ask for help. It takes courage to say you’re struggling. So whether you meet with a therapist in person or through a screen, you’re courageous. And that gets my applause!
PS: Wondering if you need therapy? Wondering if it would help you? Here are three clues it’s time to try therapy.