Online or internet-based counseling and services may be used to reach women who want to remain anonymous and might not otherwise seek counseling. Counseling through this medium might also make professional services more accessible to women living in remote areas, or with medical or physical conditions that make face-to-face contact with a counselor difficult.
While online service may not be suited for, available, or preferred by everyone, this form of service provision can provide several specific benefits, including:
- An increased sense of control by the woman or girl.
- Reduced barriers, including reducing the amount of time and distance required to access services.
- In certain contexts, a woman or girl can access online counseling services 24 hours a day.
- Facilitating communication, for those that prefer to write rather than face-to face meetings.
- Providing more time for both the woman or girl and the counselor to reflect and respond thoughtfully to what the other has communicated.
There are a variety of safety, ethical and operational challenges to providing online services. Primarily, there is a lack of empirical research on effective online service delivery models, particularly in cases where the methods do not provide for visual or auditory cues. This is not an indication that they are not effective, but rather that further research is needed. Other common challenges in the model might include:
- Inability of organizations to ensure that online services they provide will be safe, confidential and secure for survivors with risks of unauthorized access to online communications from web monitoring software. Security or safety of the survivor’s computer or other electronic device cannot be checked and managed remotely. For example, a perpetrator can install SpyWare on the survivor’s computer, allowing them to see communications made on that computer.
- Responding to threats and personal safety issues faced by the woman or girl.
- Limitations in access to appropriate technology due to barriers related to online connections, illiteracy, and motor control.
- Assessment of the woman's or girl's readiness to use online services (e.g. difficulties in verifying the identity of the woman/girl and the counsellor in the session, and challenges with reaching women who are a danger to themselves or others).
- Conducting effective risk and safety assessment with women and girls who only access online services.
- Liability to the service provider (e.g. if a woman is harmed or harms others following a counseling session).
- Maintaining confidentiality, dealing with confidentiality breaches, and record keeping practices.
- Technical problems that interrupt or terminate service.
- Limitations to services (e.g. the counselor and woman are not able to see each other, and must communicate through short remarks which must be generated quickly in order to maintain the flow of the conversation). Communicating online requires time and patience (Heinlen, 2003:81 and Preece & Ghozati, 2001 as cited in Shelternet, 2009a; Kranz, 2002:2; and Preece, 2001:8 as cited in Shelternet, 2009).