by Gordon Carson & Luke Stevenson
Social media’s role in social workers’ personal and professional lives has been hotly debated in the past few years, and inappropriate social media postings have even led to Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) proceedings for some, with one social worker sanctioned for a Facebook post. Two years ago a Community Care investigation also found that only 2% of local authorities had social media guidance for social workers.
In this context, the publication by the HCPC of guidance on social workers’ use of social media has been largely welcomed in the sector.
As well as setting out what is and isn’t acceptable, such as not sharing service user details or offensive material online, the guidance also recommends that frontline practitioners should consult with senior managers if they’re unsure about what they can or can’t post.
With this in mind, Community Care spoke to three principal social workers across adults’ and children’s services about how social workers should approach social media.
- Social media can aid social workers’ learning, says Shelley Caldwell, principal social worker for children and families in North Somerset. “I think that quite a lot of social workers, including myself, can get great benefits from being linked into a social media community. It is really positive that we recognise the learning potential of that,” she says. “I would certainly encourage people to be connected to supportive and learning communities, even if they didn’t feel necessarily confident to post or tweet themselves.”
- Social workers can use social media to keep in touch with service users, not just with other professionals, says Adam Birchall, principal social worker for children and families in Solihull. “The child protection system is decades old, and the space that children, young people and perpetrators of abuse occupy is not just physical, it’s virtual too. If we don’t have knowledge of social media we will not be able to understand how to protect vulnerable people,” he says. He gives an example of online grooming and child sexual exploitation. Interventions could be targeted using social media, which could also be used as a tool to find and communicate with young people if they go missing. Intervention could include creating accounts, clearly setting out who you are, and using this to contact missing people. He adds: “When a child/young person goes missing and is at risk of exploitation, it would be foolish not to check their social media accounts to see if we can locate or contact them. It can also help to identify patterns through mutual contacts with over victims of exploitation.” He adds: “Unless we get really savvy with using it we aren’t going to be able to do our jobs effectively in terms of protecting children who are using it.”
- But debates continue about the impact of social media on the confidentiality of service users, and how information shared publicly on social media should be used by social workers, says Birchall. “If a social worker visited a home and saw a dangerous person who should not be present in the family home, they would be wrong not to act on this, but if they looked at a service user’s profile on social media and found out the same information there’s a sense that this breaches the service user’s confidentiality, even though the information is public. There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument. It’s a new world and we’re just getting to grips [with it].”
- Social media is not as safe an environment to express frustrations as social occasions with colleagues, says Birchall. “When we speak socially with colleagues it is an opportunity to vent. [However], social media doesn’t provide a safe environment with those same colleagues, or colleagues in a wider sense, and I think sometimes people forget that what you say on social media can have huge ramifications.”
- Social media is a “great forum” for sharing ideas, says Birchall, but it needs to be managed carefully. He says posts on social media should be approached through the view of “If I was a service user [reading this]…how would I feel?”
- Social media can help to create a community of professionals, says Rob Mitchell, principal social worker for adults in Bradford. “You have to be careful and apply common sense,” Mitchell warns, but “it’s a great way to be connected to the profession and access and contribute to debates. At its best, social workers using social media can break down barriers. Most of the national connections I’ve made in the last seven years are thanks to Twitter. It’s helped me forge alliances and networks with universities, other local authorities, user groups, advocates.”
- Student and newly qualified social workers should consider their use of social media in the context of their right to privacy and family life, says Caldwell. “I think it’s an area where a lot of student social workers and newly-qualified social workers don’t necessarily give a huge amount of consideration to,” she says. “Not so much in terms of linking in with colleagues, but around their right to privacy and private life.”
- PSWs should “embrace the inevitable and support social workers to use social media wisely – and in keeping with the guidelines – and sit back and watch the links that their social workers will make,” says Mitchell. By enabling better communication, practice opportunities will arise and “potentially lives can be enriched as a result”.