Using social media in social work assessments: what the evidence tells us

Jenny Simpson looks at the conflicting messages around social workers looking at service users' social media profiles and analyses whether social workers are prepared

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By Jenny Simpson

The recent serious case review involving Wolverhampton children’s services and the death of a child by the mother’s violent partner has once again highlighted the perennial problem of a range of practitioners failing to work together effectively through the timely sharing of information.

Moreover, the review highlights in particular the way in which an ‘exorcism’ video involving the mother of the child was found by a journalist on the internet, but missed by practitioners.

While this review makes for uncomfortable reading, it has a unique feature in its reviewers’ recommendations: “When conducting assessments and reassessments of vulnerable families, practitioners may find that including internet and social media checks would enhance and triangulate information given by parents.”

The rationale that underpins this learning is that: “Checks on the internet and social media can provide publicly available information about lifestyle and relationships to inform assessments.”

This illustrates the way in which social media has become a prevalent feature of social work practice.

One could go as far as to argue that this not the first time the use of social media has been advocated by influential figures. An example includes Justice Holman’s judgment in February 2017. He commented that the use of Facebook could be a useful tool in the armoury to locate the whereabouts of a missing birth parent.

Another is the article written by the blogger Suesspicious Minds regarding social work practitioners repeatedly viewing services users’ social media accounts, and the guidance which means social workers could face committing a criminal offence for the practice.


However, what stands out about the wording used in the review is the potential to use information from the internet and social media without exercising any sense of caution, or being alert to the need to link the learning to existing good practice.

The notion of triangulation suggests that the information publicly available is reliable, yet in November 2017 the Telegraph newspaper ran a story on Facebook admitting having 270 million accounts that were fake.

The number of fake accounts comprised 10% being duplicates of real users, with a further 2-3% being categorised as user-misclassified and undesirable (Telegraph, 2017).

It’s not just Facebook that has a problem with fake accounts, Twitter also has the same difficulties. A BBC report this time last year described how a research student had accidentally found a bot network consisting of 350,000 bogus Twitter accounts. A bot is an account that is run remotely and where messages tweeted are automated.

The researchers were alerted to the false accounts because the tweets were originating from locations that were not residential addresses, posted using Windows phones, and what was being shared were quotes from Star Wars novels.

Such reports cast a long shadow of doubt over the reliability of what information is publicly available on the internet and social media, and who the author might be.

Skills and experience

Another area of significant doubt is the extent to which social work practitioners have the necessary skills and experience to assess the information made available on, for example, a Facebook account.

While there are a number of local authorities that have in place a series of procedures in relation to accessing information from the internet and social media, the question that needs to be posed is what training have practitioners had in legal standards of evidence.

Sage and Sage (2016), in their research regarding how social work practitioners in the United States made use of social media in child welfare practice, highlighted that little or no training was made available to them.

That said, Sage and Sage (2016) do usefully identify a method by which information from the internet and social media can be assessed. They refer to the work of Piretti, Otto an Estoup (2016) who suggest that the approach taken by forensic mental health evaluators (these individuals have a role in who have an investigative role in assessing a patient’s danger to self or others should), in particular, forensic mental health evaluators:

• conceptualize data gleaned from the internet and social media as “collateral information” like that drawn from outside interviews, rather than as self-report;
• weigh the utility versus the prejudicial effects of use in each case, especially when no standards exist for the assessment of such data;
• inform clients about the intent to search for this information;
• allow clients to see and respond to the information found, just as they would other collateral information such as police reports; and
• be explicit in documentation and testimony about their reliance upon this type of information in decision-making.

The research by Sage and Sage (2016) also highlighted that social work practitioners involved in their empirical research project did use social media to confirm an allegation, and that they presented this evidence in court.

Interestingly, Sage and Sage identified that over half of the social work practitioner respondents stated their employing organisation had a social media policy, but none reported that their organisation had a structured assessment tool for the information taken from the internet and social media.

Such a result left Sage and Sage (2016) assuming that social work practitioners were obtaining information and assessing it without clear and specific guidance.

Facebook’s effect on users

The focus thus far has been on the prevalence of false accounts and the skills and knowledge of social work practitioners to make effective use of information found on the internet and social media.

What has not been referred to is the phenomenon that is Facebook and its effect on its users. There have been a number of studies that have revealed Facebook’s negative effects on people’s wellbeing that includes depressive symptoms (Steers et al, 2014 and Tardoc et al, 2015) decreased life satisfaction (Kross et al, 2013 and Krasnova et al, 2013); deterioration in mood (Sagioglou et al, 2014), as well as envy as a result of unrealistic social comparison (Steers et al, 2014 and Sagioglou et al, 2014).

These recent studies raise a further question regarding the information that is publicly available on an individual’s Facebook account, which is to what extent is the post an accurate representation of an individual’s life, if feelings of dissatisfaction and envy are present? Is there a likelihood that the post is exaggerated in order to negate such feelings?

Furthermore, can those examining a Facebook account be confident that they are looking at the correct account, particularly if there is more than one? We also need to remember that where there is more than one social media account the individual may express more than one persona online.

The questions posed above may be helpful in enabling us as a profession to simply pause for a moment and determine the need for the development of a strategic and planned approach that is informed by good practice exercised by other professions.

This strategic and planned approach will require us to have a firm familiarity with research about Facebook and other social media, and an understanding of how information from the internet has been assessed. What should quickly follow on from this is relevant training not just for social work practitioners, but also senior managers in order to ensure a holistic approach.

As a profession we need to be careful as we look at the digital footprint left by service users and carers. More importantly, let us continue to debate and ponder the impact of social media, and avoid making unequivocal statements about the use of internet and social media in social work without questioning the legal and ethical implications.

Jenny Simpson is the head of social work for England at the Open University.

2 Responses to Using social media in social work assessments: what the evidence tells us

  1. Planet Autism January 31, 2018 at 3:44 pm #

    People brag, lie, joke, exaggerate, fictionalise online. Much like many social services reports.

  2. Robert February 1, 2018 at 6:38 pm #

    This works both ways. Whenever we are allocated a new social worker we look them up on FaceBook and Google. This happens because parents cannot trust their judgement and they frequently let us down.