The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Managing Digital Identities: A Grounded Theory of Mental Health Professionals' Online Experiences

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Kara S. Lopez, PhD, Seeking Employment, None, Houston, TX
Susan P. Robbins, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Background and Purpose:

This qualitative study sought to generate a practice and policy-relevant grounded theory (GT) from conceptualized data of mental health professionals’ experiences and concerns on social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Due to the rapid growth of social networking, little is known about mental health professionals’ online participation, how this technology is used, and the potential issues that professionals face when personal and professional lives intersect online.


Classic GT methodology was used as a systematic process for discovering theory from data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Convenience, snowball, and theoretical sampling led to the selection of participants. Non-structured, adjusted, conversational interviewing was conducted with 26 professionally licensed mental health professionals who were employed in mental health positions or private mental health practice. The sample included social workers, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and administrators employed in diverse settings such as hospitals, schools, private practices, treatment facilities, and public and private agencies. The initial “spill question” was, “Tell me about your experiences on social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.” Later interview questions varied depending on the replies. The methods used in this study involved the simultaneous collection of data, coding, analysis, and member checking with the constant comparative method. Field notes were taken during each interview and then hand coded for conceptual themes that were finally developed into a theory that involves a four-stage process.


The main concern that arose out of research interviews was a loss of control over other’s perceptions and the loss of ability to compartmentalize the different parts of identities associated with personal, public, private, and professional selves. Participants resolved this main concern through the author-identified basic social process of managing digital identities. The theory of Managing Digital Identities entails a four-stage process that involves 1) deconstructing identity and assessing technology, 2) creating identities, 3) presenting identities, and 4) monitoring, evaluating, and reconstructing identities. These four stages are characterized by different functions, conditions, challenges, and sub-stages which the authors will discuss more fully in this presentation. Hypotheses for future research were also developed from these findings.


Conclusions and Implications:

This study presents a new theory of how mental health professionals manage their digital identities on social network sites. This study highlights the need for professionals to stay up to date with changing technologies, to regularly use self-monitoring strategies, and indicates the need for self-awareness in different contexts and the importance of education on social network sites. This study also emphasizes professional issues surrounding ethics, online identity management, unintentional self-disclosure, dual relationships, professionalism, and professional reputation. Implications for practice, policy, and education are presented. Results indicate the need for future research and targeted professional discussion.

Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research.  Chicago: Aldine.