“The genie is out of the bottle, and it can’t be put back in”: these were the slightly ominous words being echoed around a Sussex seminar room by social work students, practitioners and adoptive parents alike. The topic of the day wasn’t child protection plans or safeguarding reviews, but hashtags and likes.
Social media is now an unavoidable part of most of our lives – particularly if you have any dealings with children and teenagers – and it’s one that presents unique challenges for social workers. Yet the vast majority of councils in the UK either have no social media policy or only a generic set of guidelines for all employees, whether they work in tax, refuse collection or with some of the nation’s most vulnerable people.
Of 151 UK councils responding to a freedom of information request, 124 had a formal social media policy. But only two of these had any tailored guidance for people working with vulnerable children and adults.
Most policies are focused on not bringing the council into disrepute, leaving social workers at a loss when it comes to navigating the very particular, and almost daily, problems of adopted children having unsupervised contact online, case confidentiality or protecting yourself against being contacted by hostile service users.
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Private and safe
One social worker, Sandy, says she worries about service users contacting her on social media or using it to work out where she lives.
“That is my private and safe place. I love my job but even when I bump into a service user on a day off whilst I’m with my friends, it makes me uncomfortable because I worry that they will take advantage of knowing what my friends look like.”
These fears are exacerbated when the scope of places you can “bump into” a service user is widened to include the whole of cyberspace.
Sandy says if more training and support were on offer it could help her find better strategies to deal with such situations as they arise.
Other social workers discussing the issue on Facebook said they felt out of control when people they worked with were able to post personal details about them and where they work online, on so called “social work hate sites”.
Employers need a strategy
The British Association of Social Workers produces some guidance for its members, but says it “strongly recommends that employers have a strategy, policy and code of practice for staff in relation to social media, which is proactive, supports professional development and greater e-professionalism for social workers and others working with children and adults”.
Northumberland: a case study
Northumberland council is one of only two councils responding to a freedom of information request which said it has a tailored social media policy for social care professionals.
The policy advises social workers on:
- Keeping children and young people safe
- Good practice
- Recent case law
- Privacy settings
- Legal consequences
The council said it was “important staff are supported suitably to use this channel of communication”.
Julie Samuels is an adoptive parent who believes social workers need more help in a newly digital world to support people like her.
“When I was going through the adoption process and it came to talking about social media, it was an older social worker with a couple of PowerPoint slides, and she was struggling.”
For now, because her child is still young and her professional background is in technology, Samuels feels well-equipped to understand the power of social media. But she admits it would be a “whole different ball game” if she found her child’s birth mother was making unsupervised contact online.
“It has to be part of life story work from day one,” she says. “In many cases social workers are thinking about it when the horse has already bolted, when something has already happened.”
“Social workers need more training,” she says. “They’re not digital media experts – their expertise is elsewhere.”
Most of the seminar’s attendees agree social workers need a better understanding of the technology, its risks and its potential and more guidance about where the boundaries lie between modern communication and the risk of harm to a vulnerable child or adult.
This is a view endorsed by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering. A spokesperson said: “The internet and social media are here to stay. They are a significant part of children and young people’s lives including their identity and social relationships.
“Training in understanding the internet and social media is essential. Adopters, foster carers and social workers need to become tech-savvy so they can talk with confidence while recognising children’s natural curiosity and the need for information.”
It’s not just their service users social workers need to think about, though. They also need to understand how to behave appropriately and safely online in order to protect themselves and their professional reputation.
Gema Hadridge is a social work student and a musician. At times she feels she lives a double life, promoting her band online while her peers change their Facebook names and hide their online identities in preparation to become social workers.
“It’s massively impacted how I think about social media, although I haven’t made any really big changes,” she says. “I know that if you type my name into Google you find videos of me, biographies of the band, a song I’ve written about a break-up being actively publicised.
“I’ve literally given a list of dates, times and locations where I’ll be because you need to do that to actively promote yourself as a musician. But as a social worker that would be a ridiculous thing to do.”
However, she’s also reaped the benefits of previously unheard of access and connectivity – with a community of academics and fellow students sharing ideas and supporting each other.
“I am a social worker and completely understand the negative aspects of social media when it comes to fostering and adoption. But I am also an adopted adult and I have a very positive experience of social media to share.
“I met my birth parents and siblings when I was in my mid-twenties, but over time our contact dwindled. It troubled me that they were out there and we weren’t having contact but I found the thought of picking up the phone too difficult.
“One day, on impulse, I searched for my sister and brother on Bebo and found them straight away. I sent them a message and they both replied. Contact on social media enabled us to restart our relationship and since then we have met a few times and we are in regular contact on Facebook.
‘For me it paid off’
“When I pressed the “send ” button, I knew I was taking a risk of further rejection. For me it paid off, but when I spontaneously sent those messages via Bebo this action was done on the back of years of considering what I wanted with respect to having a relationship with my birth family.
“I struggled between the ages of 17 to 26 to make a decision about contact with them and when I did it was via an intermediary. Social media was not around back then. I find it scary that if it had been I could have contacted them with no support and little insight into the implications.
“The speed in which contact can be made is disconcerting and I think a regularly updated guide to social networks would be helpful.”
Continuing professional development
What’s clear is most social workers feel social media in itself is not a bad thing – like anything, it’s how it’s used that matters.
For Hadridge the key is open and ongoing discussions, in initial training but also, crucially, as part of all social workers’ continuing professional development.
“Irrelevant of what we think is right or wrong, we need to think about social media because it impacts our service users,” she says.
While councils’ policies in the majority remain generic and brief, no other organisation appears able to fill the gap.
The English and Scottish regulators, the Health and Care Professions Council and the Scottish Social Services Council, produce social media guidance but point out that as regulatory bodies their focus is on conduct, not detailed practice guidance. Their Welsh counterpart, the Care Council for Wales, does not produce any formal guidance.
Championing the value
Amanda Taylor, a social work academic at the University of Central Lancashire, is at the heart of a group championing the value of social media and travels around the country delivering training sessions to social work practitioners.
“There’s an incredible need for social workers to be more clear about things like their digital footprint and how you align your use of social media with the professional capabilities framework (PCF),” she says.
Social media has created a space where people are “connecting up, sharing resources and learning from each other,” she says. But they need help navigating situations like service users making contact online.
“I’ve been helping students understand social media as a layer of their professional identity and helping them to understand the positives as well as the risks that can come about from inappropriate or uninformed use.”
Taylor is well aware of the possibilities that can be opened up by social media: she’s contributed to a book and begun a research project based on her online conversations. Her Twitter-based social work book group started as three students in a library, and now numbers 1700 participants sharing, discussing and supporting each other. It’s a powerful force and, for Taylor and many others, not something the social work community should view as a dangerous one.
“I don’t think we have the option to ignore it,” she says. “Social work responds to the changing landscape all the time, and I think we’re responding to this.
“I think the support is there. There needs to be additional training but the other side of is, no matter what we’re working with, we have professional standards. We just need to think about them differently and apply them.”
Embrace it or fear it, social media is not going away any time soon – it’s going to take some effort to shift cultures so it can sit comfortably side by side with social work. But in some pockets of the internet, this mammoth task is already underway.
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