Does “digital empathy” work in virtual psychotherapy?

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the psychotherapy has moved online. Two new studies are examining whether teletherapy and videoconferencing therapy are useful. Can Empathy Connect Clients to Their Therapists Despite the Virtual Divide? Has psychotherapy adapted to online travel? The results may be surprising to some.

In a study published in Frontiers in psychology, the researchers found that clients felt their psychotherapist was significantly more empathetic and supportive in a remote environment than in person. This is important because, depending on the type of psychotherapy, whether a client feels connected to the psychotherapist can be an essential factor for a positive outcome of the treatment.

“Digital empathy” has been defined as “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and care for others expressed through computerized communications”. Other models of digital empathy have broadened the characteristics of “digital empathy”:

  • Ability to analyze and assess the internal state of others (precision of empathy)
  • A sense of identity and agency (self-empathy)
  • Recognize, understand and predict the thoughts and emotions of others (cognitive empathy)
  • Feel what others are feeling (emotional empathy)
  • Role play (imaginative empathy)
  • Be compassionate towards others (empathetic concern) via digital media

The study examines online therapy sessions that took place via Skype and WhatsApp video calls. About half of the customers used desktops or laptops, the other half using a mix of tablets or smartphones. Almost 90% of therapists used a computer.

Research found that therapists felt they could offer the same amount of empathy, whether in person or virtually. Surprisingly, patients felt more empathically connected and supported by their therapist in the virtual setting than in person. These findings build on previous therapeutic research conducted before the pandemic, which found that empathy can indeed transcend virtual boundaries and be effective in virtual psychotherapy.

Another study from 2021 confirms that group psychotherapy can be done effectively virtually. In fact, some customers have found remote group work even more useful than in person, but not everyone.

These studies raise the fact that personal preferences and self-selection can have a lot to do with how comfortable people are with virtual psychotherapy and teletherapy and the positive results of treatment. Customers who respond well in virtual environments are likely those who are already comfortable with video conferencing technology and can feel comfortable and have privacy at home. The same goes for the therapist. Research has shown that therapists who feel most comfortable and effective in offering virtual psychotherapy have generally offered it before, even before the pandemic.

Psychotherapy has made an effective transition online for many people, despite the limitations of technological issues, sound delays, and difficulty perceiving micro-expressions. Clients should feel empowered to assess whether virtual therapy is suitable for their needs.

It is likely that many clients and therapists will continue to choose to stay online, given the positive results and the ability of digital empathy to exist, along with the convenience of scheduling, reduced commute time, and the ability to communicate securely without a mask. The good news is that virtual psychotherapy can be offered in a way that clients find positive and effective, and is likely to remain a basic platform for the delivery of psychotherapy.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2021

To find a therapist, visit Psychology Today’s Therapy Directory.

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