Does “Digital Empathy” Work in Virtual Psychotherapy?

Digital empathy is “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated interactions.” A recent study suggests that clients felt their psychotherapist was more empathic and supportive in a remote setting than an in-person setting.

Another study found that virtual group therapy can be as effective as in-person group therapy. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, much of psychotherapy has moved online. Two new studies take a look at whether teletherapy and video conference therapy are helpful. Can empathy connect clients with their therapists despite the virtual divide? Has psychotherapy adapted to moving online? The results may be surprising for some.

In one study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that clients felt like their psychotherapist was significantly more empathic and supportive in the remote setting compared to 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 in a positive outcome in treatment.

“Digital empathy” has been defined as “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications.” Further models of digital empathy have expanded the characteristics of “digital empathy”:

  • Ability to analyze and evaluate another’s internal state (empathy accuracy)
  • A sense of identity and agency (self-empathy)
  • Recognize, understand and predict other’s thoughts and emotions (cognitive empathy)
  • Feel what others feel (affective empathy)
  • Role play (imaginative empathy)
  • Be compassionate to others (empathic concern) via digital media

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

The research found that therapists felt like they could offer the same amount of empathy whether in person or virtually. Surprisingly, patients felt more empathetically connected to and supported by their therapist in the virtual setting, compared to in person. These findings build upon prior therapy research conducted before the pandemic, which found that empathy can indeed reach across virtual borders and be effective in virtual psychotherapy.

Another study from 2021 confirms that group psychotherapy can be done effectively virtually. In fact, some clients found remote group work even more helpful than in person, but that this is not the case for everyone.

These studies do raise the point that personal preference and self-selection may have a lot to do with how comfortable people are with virtual psychotherapy and teletherapy and positive treatment outcomes. Clients who respond well in virtual settings are likely those already at ease with video conferencing technology and are able to feel comfortable and have privacy at home.

The same goes for the therapist. Research has found that therapists who feel most comfortable and effective in offering virtual psychotherapy typically had offered it previously, even before the pandemic.

Psychotherapy has transitioned online effectively for many people, in spite of the limitations of technological issues, sound delays, and the difficulty with perceiving micro-expressions. Clients should feel empowered to assess whether virtual therapy is a good fit for their needs.

It is likely that many clients and therapists will continue to choose to stay online, given the positive results and ability for digital empathy to exist alongside the convenience of scheduling, less commute time, and being able to communicate safely without masks. The good news is that virtual psychotherapy can be offered in a way that clients feel is supportive and effective and will likely remain a mainstay platform for the delivery of psychotherapy.

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