Virtual therapy has its roots in a children’s computer program


Online mental health resources have seen a huge surge in users during the pandemic, but virtual therapy isn’t an entirely new concept. Thirty-six years ago, the star photographed this little girl at the Thistletown Regional Center in Etobicoke using a program that allowed emotionally challenged children to answer intimate questions via computer (like the now deeply outdated one on the photo: “Do you or have you ever dressed as a boy to play?”). It was developed by psychologist Steven Stein, who at the time believed that computers « could find wider use in therapy ».

Turns out he was right. Toronto registered psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton had offered virtual therapy before the pandemic, but those sessions were rare. « I would say less than a tenth of my practice was online before COVID, » she says, « but now I’m working 100% virtually. »

Singleton has no plans to return to a physical office. “Most of my clients prefer virtual therapy,” she says, weighing the pros and cons of this new model. « I miss seeing people in person and think we compromise by practicing virtually, but it’s worth it for most of my clients. »

According to Singleton, virtual therapy (also known as e-therapy, cyber counseling and telepsychology) can be a lifesaver for many, including those with mobility issues, those who live in remote areas, as well as those with unpredictable schedules. « And some people feel weird talking face to face (in person) about their private thoughts, » she says. « Researchers call this sense of distance and anonymity that e-therapy enjoys ‘the disinhibition effect’ and it can be a real benefit for us. »

Singleton, also with a doctorate in philosophy focusing on the dynamics of love and sex, specializes in relationship and sex therapy. Since she often works with couples and people in polyamorous relationships, she finds it much easier to coordinate schedules online than in person. “Partners often join from different places, which is a mixed bag,” she says. “It creates latitude with schedules, and I think it can actually keep the temperature down for high-conflict couples.

“But,” she adds, “there is a sense of intimacy that is compromised when partners are not seated next to each other in physical and energetic proximity.”

Singleton says there are good reasons why traditional counseling takes place in person in a therapist’s office: « There’s something about the sanctity of the room, the neutrality, as opposed to being be in your own space. »

Still, she thinks virtual therapy, by video, phone, text or email, will likely be the new normal. « That’s both a good thing and something that should make us somewhat concerned or at least cautious, » she says, adding, « I’m ambivalent about large corporate structures providing virtual therapy. «

With so much socializing and working online, Singleton has noticed a shift in the way people conduct intimate relationships, especially given the rise of online dating, sexting and virtual sex. « I’ve seen people question the way they love and have sex during the pandemic, » she says. « (So) it may make sense that discussions about these relationships are also taking place online. »

Singleton says virtual therapy can also sometimes offer unexpected insights for therapists and their clients. “I had the usual Zoom misadventures of catching a partner in their underwear,” Singleton says with a laugh, “and I love pandemic pets.

« I’ve met so many animals and I honestly think it can be a great asset for some clients to have their buddy with them. »


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