What are the risks of social workers using Facebook to find service users?

Jenny Simpson analyses potential effects from social workers using Facebook to find service users, as was suggested in a recent court judgment

social media
Photo: athoslia/Fotolia

by Jenny Simpson

A recent court decision about the role of Facebook in care proceedings could prove to be the beginning of a new type of social work where for the sake of expediency a social networking site is used to find missing birth parents.

Justice Holman’s February judgment was made in circumstances where a local authority had tried and failed to find a birth mother.  However, the girlfriend of the birth father had made contact with the birth mother via Facebook just days before the court hearing.

While it is acknowledged that Justice Holman’s judgment was clearly motivated by the need to ensure that the birth mother of the child received notification of the adoption application, this ruling could potentially encourage the use of Facebook as a means of finding individuals.

That said, Justice Holman sensibly tempered his ruling by stating:

“I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook should be the first method used, but it does seem a useful tool in the armoury which can certainly be resorted to long before a conclusion is reached that it is impossible to locate the whereabouts of a birth parent”.

However, with one use of Facebook identified and supported by a judge, does this open up social networking sites for other uses by social workers? If so, what are the implications?

Data protection

One of the first implications is that every social work practitioner and their employer must consider the Data Protection Act 1998.

In other words, before any search can begin personal data has to be “fairly and lawfully processed”, meaning that there needs to be legitimate grounds for collecting and using personal data.

A further consideration under the Data Protection Act is that any data obtained and used must be done in a way that it does not have an adverse effect upon the individual.

Depending on what information is obtained and what it is being used for, it could be argued that a birth parent who is fighting care proceedings is likely to consider that any action on the part of a local authority as having an adverse effect upon him or her. Therefore, to seek information from a social networking site like Facebook could make both the local authority and the social work practitioner liable to further court action.


A second implication that is not obvious from Justice Holman’s ruling is that for an individual’s personal information to be used fairly and lawfully the individual needs to give consent to his or her personal data being collected and used in a way that addresses the intended purpose.

For example, take a situation when there is a change in the privacy policy of the social networking site where individuals have an account. We are encouraged to read the privacy policy and then give our consent or not by opting in or opting out. The point being our consent has been obtained, even if most of us don’t read the small print or fully appreciate what is being done with our personal information.

A third implication is Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is concerned with the right to private and family life. The notion of being able to live privately without interference from the state has been challenged in the courts across a range of cases over a number of years e.g. Peck vs. United Kingdom (2003) through to Plantagenet Alliance v Ministry of Justice & Others (2014).

Not so simple

Although it is more than likely that within the arena of child and family social work a local authority may be able to argue a specific limitation, this does not provide an exemption from an overall approach that needs to be proportionate, necessary and have a recognised legitimate aim.

Having looked very briefly at just three immediate implications stemming from Justice Holman’s ruling you might have the impression that a simple search on Facebook is not so ‘simple’ after all.

There is a need for caution to be exercised at all times and therefore social work practitioners need to seek advice and guidance from their employing organisation before taking it upon themselves to have a ‘quick look’ on Facebook. Failure to do so could mean that the practitioners are not only in breach of the Data Protection Act but also their own organisational policies and procedures.

Simply put, as social work practitioners there is a need for us to understand our role and its importance in the face of a changing legal landscape so that we can operate within its bounds, and be accountable to our service users and carers, as well as the wider public.

Jenny Simpson is a regional academic manager working for The Open University, on its undergraduate social work programme in the south of England.

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6 Responses to What are the risks of social workers using Facebook to find service users?

  1. Longtime SW April 26, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

    Practitioners should be extremely cautious about using any social media (SM) in connection with their work for a number of reasons.

    Whose Facebook (FB) account would be used? Using personal FB account’s opens you up to unwanted, possibly malicious postings unconnected with your professional life at the very least

    Clear written consent from the employing organisation needs to be obtained and auditing of the use of FB or any other SM recorded by IT as to postings and responses if SM is to be used at all.

    There is a risk that accessing any SM account using work devices breaches organisation policy with regards to data protection alongside security from viruses/hacking etc. as well as dubious content finding its way into the user’s account – the personal and professional implications of getting it wrong, no matter how innocent the intent, are serious. ( I believe that an education professional had their account unknowingly hacked with vile and abusive pictures and messages purported to come from them, resulting in their suspension and impact on their marriage, though eventually found to be completely innocent)

    I choose not to have any SM accounts personally – this follows a relative having had, (unbeknownst to them), a photo from their student days being innocently posted online by a friend without their knowledge and shared. Though the image context was not particularly inappropriate, it was professionally embarrassing as they were all clearly inebriated.

    I stick to using e-mails and even treat most of them as I would a Postcard (remember them?) – Postcard content is open for all to read – same with FB/SM!!

  2. Martin Porter April 27, 2017 at 1:57 pm #

    Not having a social media profile is soon going to be a thing of the past. I imagine most social work students now have social media histories that go back decades before they started their courses, drunken photos and all. It’s just a part of modern life.

    The issues for practise are huge. Not only will estranged families be hunting each other on social media, we will have a generation who’ve grown up with social media dying. How do we deal with that? Who closes the Twitter account? How do you stop facebook making friend requests about the dead person? How do families access photos on a locked social media account? Etc etc

    These are issues the profession needs to take seriously, and they aren’t easy ones.

  3. curious facebooker April 27, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    I am curious as to the data protection issue and the person in questions privacy settings.

    If a person has their privacy settings set so that anyone can see what is on their Facebook account then they are already giving permission for anyone to look at that information.

    I have a Facebook page but details, posts and pictures can only be seen by those I give permission to see them.

    I am not sure how this might work with regards to evidence in court.

    However, we also know that someone’s social media life is often a million miles away from real life as it is often a place of fantasy and how people may want to be seen, so must be cautious, to not take anything on there as accurate.

    far from simple…

  4. colsey May 2, 2017 at 6:13 pm #

    what was wrong the LA using a genealogy firm to try and trace – I do it all the time and it is never above £500 (usually around £300) and I can set a financial limit

  5. Tom Hughes May 3, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    Facebook is a public forum and comes under publishing law. If an individual publishes their own Facebook information and it is deemed public, they are responsible for it as the author of that publication. Data protection is unlikely to be a consideration if someone has clearly published their own personal information in the public domain. The nature of Facebook is that it is a public forum and no social worker is going to be prosecuted under data protection for using the data that an individual has personally published on a social media page.

  6. Chris May 4, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    If social workers are going to use Facebook, wouldn’t it make sense for the LA to create it’s own Facebook account that the social worker can operate? This would avoid the personal/work blurring that happens when professionals use their personal accounts.