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Virtual Counseling: Is Online Counseling for Teens and Young Adults Effective?

Teens and young adults are truly members of today’s digital generation. In fact, one study found that the average American teen spent just over eight hours online every day. A rising trend in screen usage from a cross-sectional study coincides with another trend: the increasing prevalence of online therapy and virtual counseling. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, research shows that counseling can help. But is virtual counseling just as effective as traditional in-person therapy?

Reasons To Try Online Counseling

Children are struggling with mental health and mental illnesses like never before. Over the past decade, researchers have found a significant rise in depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem issues, and other mental health concerns in teens and young adults. The situation has only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, according to a U.S. surgeon general’s report issued in December 2021, depressive symptoms have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing them.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that early access to therapy services and other mental health treatment can make a difference in your child’s mental health and wellness. Yet getting your child in to see a counselor can be a struggle:

  • Fitting a visit to a therapist into your child’s already overwhelmed middle school, high school, college, and/or job schedule can lead to more stress and anxiety.
  • A teen or young adult may feel uncomfortable, awkward, or embarrassed going to see a therapist in person.

With your child’s life likely already fully encamped in the digital space, including video games and social media, online counseling creates another option:

  • Your child has more flexibility when it comes to appointment times and scheduling, especially if the services include a mobile app.
  • Online counseling can feel more comfortable to teens and young adults already used to interacting with others on the Internet.

Advantages of Virtual Counseling for Teens and Young Adults

“Everyone goes through different degrees of difficulty,” said Alec Dorman, chief of staff at Embark Behavioral Health. “Virtual counseling for teens and young adults is a way to get extra support and extra help from people who’ve dedicated their lives to working with these age groups.”

Here are two key advantages to virtual counseling:

1. Online counseling can be effective for addressing mental health conditions

Therapists have long offered options like telehealth therapy programs and text messaging to their clients, but the ubiquity of tablets and smartphones has taken the field of virtual counseling to a new level. And while there might be a screen between the counselor and a teen or young adult, studies have found that it doesn’t matter as much as you might think.

For example, according to a 2018 analysis of multiple studies published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy provided over the Internet to those 18 and older with anxiety and depression is effective, with participants showing high rates of satisfaction.

2. Online counseling is more accessible for teens and young adults

Virtual counseling can be done anytime and anywhere. This makes online counseling ideal if your child:

  • Lives in a rural area or is far away from a therapist or counselor who specializes in their unique needs or concerns.
  • Has mobility or physical limitations that make it difficult to go to a therapist’s office.
  • Is struggling with a mental health issue, such as a phobia or social anxiety, that makes seeing someone in person very difficult and triggering.

“This is a way to reach a broader population of those needing or considering therapy,” Dorman said. “That’s everyone goal.”

How To Find Virtual Teen and Young Adult Counseling: Tips and Strategies for Success

Digital therapy can be transformative for your child and other family members, but not every therapist offers this option. If you want to find the best online counseling, here’s what you need to know.

1. Be aware of legal or ethical issues

Licensed therapists and counselors — who you can research on the Psychology Today website — have very stringent rules about reporting risky situations (e.g., if a teen or young adult feels suicidal or is self-harming) and maintaining confidentiality and privacy.

However, it’s worth noting the American Psychological Association has advised therapists to do due diligence when considering partnering with virtual counseling platforms and make sure that their reporting and privacy measures are clear and compliant. You may also want to check on each platform’s policy on parental consent.

2. Strive toward video-based online counseling vs. texting or phone calls

Body language is powerful, and it can tell the online counselor a lot about how a teen or young adult is really feeling. While text message check-ins or phone calls can be helpful, encourage your child to hop on a video chat with their counselor. In a safe space, observing body language gives the mental health care professional more holistic insight into your child’s well-being.

3. Do your research on the therapist’s background

Just because it’s easy to hop onto a virtual counseling session with the tap of a button doesn’t mean you should treat the vetting process more casually. If you opt to use an online counseling platform, do your research on:

  • How your child gets matched to one of the platform’s therapists.
  • Individual therapy session costs and subscription fees.
  • Types of modalities (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy) to deal with specific stressors.
  • Technology or apps required to use the platform.
  • The user reviews left by patients.

If you’re booking one-on-one virtual counseling with a specific therapist in your region, refer to your state’s governing body or oversight agency to find a counselor who is certified and in good standing.

4. Don’t be afraid to mix things up

A teen or young adult should feel comfortable and safe with the therapist or counselor that they meet online. Check in with your child after their first few therapy sessions are complete. If there’s a personality clash or the therapist’s approach simply doesn’t feel comfortable to your child, be open to finding another counselor. With online counseling, switching therapists can be simple and quick.

Closing Thoughts

Virtual counseling can be a convenient, effective option for teens and young adults looking to improve their mental health. While your child may ultimately prefer an in-person experience, the flexibility and accessibility of online therapy make it well worth a look, especially during the stressful COVID-19 pandemic.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.