Covert surveillance of the Facebook accounts of families involved with children’s services has become “normalised” within some social work teams, amid confusion over the practice, a study has concluded.
The findings, which stemmed from a 15-month research project focusing on practitioners’ relationships with families in two local authorities, found “troubling” surveillance being discussed casually in case conferences and tolerated by managers.
In some cases, academics found, reluctant social workers had been “drawn into” the practice, including by managers, despite some of their actions being potentially illegal.
“We [the sector] need to stop and think, and get guidance, especially around the ethical and legal perspectives,” the lead on the project, Tarsem Singh Cooner, of the University of Birmingham, told Community Care.
“Clearly local authorities need to be clear about what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t – and training is an absolute must,” he added.
Cooner and his fellow authors acknowledged that, because their original research focus was not around social media use, they were unaware of relevant legislation and guidance on authorising surveillance (see box) until they had finished a first draft of their report, meaning they did not explicitly check whether social workers had made any efforts to seek authorisation.
But last year, a Community Care investigation found most local authority policies covering the use of social media by social workers did not mention guidance or law regarding the surveillance of social media accounts.
However, experts working on national research around social media led by the Principal Children & Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network warned that the paper’s findings should not be assumed to be replicated across the national workforce.
“Our observations and the current PCFSW research indicate that although there is much confusion about current practice guidance, most practitioners are rather cautious about the use of social media and careful about its ethical implications,” said Peter Buzzi, the research and project lead for the PCFSW research and practice improvement project.
Contrasting approaches to surveillance
The new study, published in the Journal of Technology in Human Services (Taylor & Francis Online) identified two broad perspectives among social workers about surveillance, which tended to be driven by either ethical or pragmatic concerns.
Some social workers actively took a decision to avoid using Facebook covertly to gather information, based on rationale such as respecting service users’ privacy. If they did plan to look at profiles – many of which, the report said, were not locked down by privacy settings – then they would inform families of their intent.
More on social workers, surveillance and digital competence
But other practitioners tended to the opinion that covert surveillance could be morally justified if it enabled a positive consequence, such as protecting a child from harm.
Following this viewpoint, some social workers involved in the study had used ‘office’ or ‘team’ Facebook accounts to gather evidence about families’ behaviour and current/past relationships.
“We’ve got a team one, we get a lot of information from Facebook – I know it’s a bit naughty,” one team manager was quoted as saying.
The study concluded that these approaches were “part of a strategy to cope with anxiety and risk and for workers and the organisation to defend themselves against the unbearable feelings of uncertainty about the safety of children”.
‘Drawn-in’ social workers
Such institutional cultures had helped create a third, conflicted perspective among some social workers, who were “drawn into” social media surveillance despite misgivings, a situation that researchers said did not appear in other studies.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000 (as amended), a local authority may only authorise the use of ‘directed surveillance’ when it is necessary and proportionate, for the purposes of detecting or preventing a criminal offence punishable by over six months or related to the underage sale of alcohol or tobacco, and with a magistrate’s approval. The authorisation must come from an authorised officer of the council (a director, head of service or service manager).
Directed surveillance is covert (without the person knowing), not carried out in relation to a residential premise or private vehicle and conducted in relation to a specific investigation in such a way as will likely to result in private information being obtained about the person.
Home Office guidance under RIPA states that whether the monitoring of a person’s social media presence constitutes directed surveillance depends on whether the person has a reasonably held expectation of privacy in what they post. This expectation may apply even when they have not made use of privacy settings, if their intention was not for their postings to be used for covert investigation. The guidance also says that “simple reconnaissance of such sites” is unlikely to require a directed surveillance authorisation, but an authorisation should be considered if the authority is systematically collecting and recording of information about a particular individual or group.
In a recent blog post, family law barrister Lucy Reed warned social workers were entering a “minefield” by spying on families’ Facebook accounts and should think hard before proceeding without authorisation.
“We noted that when a manager used covert Facebook surveillance, a social worker could soon find themselves having to choose whether to act on information provided or risk conflict with their manager,” the report said.
The study noted that social workers were not only tested in this way by the actions of their bosses, but also by other individuals – including family members of people they were working with – presenting them with online evidence of apparent concern. This left practitioners with a dilemma around whether and how to investigate further.
“It was the absolute lack of guidance, and confusion [that was most concerning once we analysed our data],” Cooner said. “We need to seek help as to what is an appropriate way, if there is one, to use different facilities that are available to us.
“The discussion also has to take on board different [contextual] elements such as cuts in teams, pressure on social workers in terms of the work they have to do, and lack of resources, and how this may influence their actions,” he added.
Need to tackle child protection culture
In its conclusion, the study report called for greater clarity and guidance for professionals, to avoid social workers pursuing a “morally indefensible road”. This would not just involve teaching practitioners what to do but addressing the environments in which they worked because “lack of resources, power, uncertainty and risk are central to shaping how social workers engage with the ethics of social media use in a professional capacity”.
It acknowledged the likelihood that there will always be occasions in high-risk child protection social work when some practitioners decide it is appropriate to check service users’ social media accounts. Doing so could be seen as defensible where privacy settings placed material in the public domain, the report said.
However, it said that the child protection culture that led to the pragmatic use of covert surveillance of families’ social media use was unlikely to change unless the emotional complexity of the work was acknowledged and “adequate resources and meaningful emotional support and supervision is provided for staff”.
Also, the rights of practitioners not to be drawn into social media surveillance by others, especially managers, needed to be protected.
“Our recommendation, accordingly, is that the current troubling use of social media to covertly monitor families and keep under surveillance those aspects of their lives they choose to share on platforms like Facebook requires the profession to pause and engage with a spectrum of stakeholders in a full discussion to develop guidelines and approaches to staff support, professional development and practice that are relevant to social work in a fast changing digitally networked society,” it concluded.
‘Ethical confusion and dilemmas’
Responding to the new findings, Claudia Megele, chair of the PCFSW Network, said that “the ethical confusion and dilemmas on part of practitioners and managers – and the researchers in this paper – highlight the current gap in guidance and the continued lack of appreciation of the implications of social media and digital technologies for social work and social care”.
But Megele, who wrote about social workers’ apparent lack of understanding around social media more than seven years ago, said interim results from the PCFSW network-led national research and practice improvement project on digital professionalism and online safeguarding indicate that the practice noted in the paper does not represent the national picture and is not widespread.
“Still, there is no evidence-based understanding of how social workers use social media in practice and the challenges they face,” Megele said. She added that addressing these issues forms part of the objectives of the current PCFSW network research, which is still surveying practitioners.
‘Risk of undermining public trust’
PCFSW research project lead Peter Buzzi added that there was a risk the new report, while raising valuable points, “may be misunderstood as widespread malpractice, and this may undermine public trust in social care”. He noted that the paper itself raised questions as to whether some of the practice recorded in it should have been challenged at the time, and said the parameters around the term “drawn-in” needed to be treated with care.
“While the behaviour of managers ‘Facebook stalking’ children and families is inappropriate and unethical and at times unlawful, practitioners may, and at times do, receive screenshots or other data or information from family members or third parties for a variety of reasons,” he said. “In such cases practitioners have the responsibility to treat such data or information in the same manner they treat any other evidence – [but they] should be supported to question unethical or legally questionable behaviour by their managers and to escalate such matters as need be.”
Social media continues to pose a “significant and fast-evolving challenge” for relationship-based professions, Buzzi said. “It is important policy makers are able to provide clear and proportionate practice-based and practice-relevant guidance and that practitioners receive appropriate supervision and support to be able to apply this guidance in practice both online and offline.”
You can contribute to the PCFSW network research by answering a survey it is running on digital professionalism. Community Care is a media partner in the research project and will be publishing periodic updates on its progress and conclusions.