Lack of clear social media guidance is creating ‘anxiety and alienation’

More clarity and engagement is needed on appropriate social media use, writes social work academic Denise Turner

Social media illustration

In October 2012 Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, announced the site now had over a billion active accounts. If the site were a nation, it would be the third largest in the world. The power and influence of just this one social media platform seems undeniable.

The vertiginous expansion of social media has created a number of  ethical challenges for social workers. Dealing with complex lives and often highly charged information, confidentiality and sensitivity are key factors.

Appropriate conduct

At the moment, social workers are being are told to behave “appropriately” and to keep within boundaries with only limited guidance. Both the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) have produced broad guidelines for social workers in using social media without addressing some of the true complexities, and together with the Professional Capabilities Framework, social work practitioners and students find themselves required to maintain appropriate conduct with little clarity as to what this really means within the brave new world of digital space.

Anxiety and alienation

Fear of sanction creates anxiety and alienation around use of social networking. This anxiety has led to a lack of engagement with social media within social work practice and education, possibly exacerbated by highly publicised cases of social workers losing their jobs due to naïve use of networking platforms. These cases contributed to 60% of UK local authorities, as recently as two years ago, barring their employees from social media use at work.

One possible answer to this is for all local authorities and social work employers to produce more tailored advice on use of social media.

Education and practice

However, there are also increasing signs that social media is being adopted innovatively and positively within social work education and practice.

The benefits of digital devices are also becoming increasingly recognised both by local authorities and educators, for example in Nottinghamshire County Council’s successful pilot providing social workers with tablet devices.

This was something raised by one of our social work students at the University of Sussex, Rachel Larkin. At a seminar earlier this year she called for practice models and tools to be revisited and re-evaluated to properly equip social workers for the new digital world. At Sussex, our undergraduate students have also been engaged in vigorous online debate around the use of social media in social work. Following the debate with interest, Annick, a social work BA student, commented on the course online forum:

“I believe that changing the image of social work needs to be done via social media, because this is where most people are getting their information from these days.

“I believe that more positive stories need to be shared, anonymously if necessary, on social media pages because we should show the real face of social work and not just child protection horror stories.”

Battle lines

Another student, Richard, responded to Annick’s post by urging her to “get stuck in” to a “battle well worth fighting”. The debate around social media use in social work does indeed feel like a battle, with the lines tightly drawn between those who wish to protect service users and social workers alike by boycotting any engagement with social networking, and those who see it as an irreversible trend where lack of participation presents the  equal risk of alienating social workers from the service users they  work with and care for.

At Sussex, our students, as the next generation of practitioners, are taking this debate forward and I would strongly urge all those involved with social work to follow their example and get involved.

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