Social workers ‘must be cautious with online social media’

Jon Bolton advises social care staff to make sure their online presence is professionally appropriate, while remaining alive to the potential benefits of social media for service users

Jon Bolton advises social care staff to make sure their online presence is professionally appropriate, while remaining alive to the potential benefits of social media for service users

Although the technology and tools are relatively new, the concept of social networking has been around much longer than the internet. People are naturally social creatures; that’s what makes social media such a powerful concept. Social media channels allow human beings to sort themselves seamlessly into groups and factions and maintain intimate relationships at greater distances than ever before.

Many social care professionals use tools such as Twitter and Facebook, as do many people with an interest in what we do, including students, other professionals, academics, services users, journalists, politicians and, of course, critics of our profession.

Interacting with others through social media has become the norm for children and young people, with about 80% of British under-twos having an online presence, usually in the form of pictures posted by their parents. For adults, too, the web has revolutionised the way we use and share information. As such, our behaviour online is now as important as our behaviour offline.

Recently I was saddened to see someone in the social care sector criticising a fellow professional on Twitter. The messages were quite harsh in tone and the author was ignorant of the true situation. A few others joined in, and it was clear that they all felt it was OK to intimidate and, in effect, bully a colleague.

In my view, that is not appropriate behaviour, regardless of whether they knew the person, online or offline. It’s not what I expect from a care or health professional and in itself is a breach of the professional codes of conduct for social workers, nurses, doctors and allied health professionals.

Anna Fowlie, chief executive of the Scottish Social Services Council, told me in February: “The fastest growing subject of conduct referrals [to the SSSC] is online behaviour, and this isn’t [the SSSC] going out and looking for it, but colleagues in workplaces being appalled at social workers’ behaviour.”

This is not just a social work issue. I’ve had conversations with chief police officers, education managers and head teachers about similar concerns within their respective workforces. In June, a police officer was dismissed without notice for posting offensive messages about a fellow officer on Facebook and harassing a female colleague.

Social workers are in the public eye. We work with vulnerable people and we often engage with people from a position of authority. If our behaviour, online and in real life, is not of an appropriate standard, we risk losing respect for the profession and that damages the work that we can do with service users.

Here are some tips on professional conduct in an online arena:

1 Beware drunken wedding photos

Remember that you might have an online presence, even if you don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. Have you been to a wedding recently, or a birthday party? Were friends, family or colleagues taking photos? Do you know if they are users of Facebook?

Were you on your best behaviour? The photos from that event might well now be in cyberspace. People who know you may see them. Are you absolutely happy that your actions at that celebration are now in the public eye?

2 Find out the risks

It’s crucial to understand online safety, not only as social workers but as adults generally, because that knowledge helps to keep vulnerable children and adults safe. Take time to find out about available technologies and potential risks, even if you don’t intend to engage with social media sites yourself.

3 Don’t ignore the value for clients

Social media now plays a part in the development of services, particularly in the context of personalisation. Many service users are using social media to increase their choice and control.

In a report for the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services, published in August, social media commentator Shirley Ayres, says: “If professionals working on the frontline are unable, or not encouraged, to gain experience of the language and cultural norms of, say, Facebook, they are effectively disempowered from understanding and empathising with their increasingly fluent clients.”

Jon Bolton is director of Focused on Learning, a specialist training and consultancy company that works mainly with clients in the public, academic and not-for-profit sectors, particularly in health and social care

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