Social Work & Social Media: Where are the Ethical Boundaries?

The NASW News recently posted an article about social media’s impact on the social work profession.  This article discussed both the ups and downs of social media, highlighting the benefits of recruiting social workers and increasing communication among professionals.  In the technology world, exciting new therapeutic possibilities via new technologies, such as Skype, are becoming more and more prevalent. These new technologies also bring to question where the ethical boundaries are in relation to clients, social workers, and social media.

Social media lends itself to a multitude of possible ethical issues: conflict of interest, privacy and confidentiality, inappropriate self-disclosure, and even dual relationships.  Where should a social worker draw the line with a client?  Is it ever ok to accept a friend request?  Is looking at a client’s profile or blog an invasion of privacy or does it provide beneficial information, especially in emergency situations?  How can you make sure communications between a client and clinician are kept confidential?

One suggestion has been that agencies have a social networking policy that is regularly updated and shared with clients.  This type of policy establishes fixed boundaries that may eliminate some gray areas on an agency-to-agency basis, although this does not set an overall professional standard.  The best policy would probably be to refer to the NASW Code of Ethics, Section 4.03: “Social workers should not permit their private conduct to interfere with their ability to fulfill their professional responsibilities.”  You can also view the NASW and Association of Social Work Board’s Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. Social workers have a lot to consider before posting a blog or status.  Your personal life could affect your professional responsibilities.

Where do you draw the line with social media and professional life?

6 comments

  1. I’ve tried to find this link as well and it is invalid.

  2. I am a social work student writing my dissertation on this very subject, I would love to read this article, would it be possible to see the link?

    I am trying to find out social worker’s opinions on using social media as a tool for assessment and looking at the ethical boundaries of such a proposition. There are so many issues to deal with; human rights, data protection, harassment, informed consent??? There are no real guidelines around how we should be using social networking sites. From those practicing, whom I have spoken to, some think it is completely unethical and some feel it would be stupid not to be using them.

    Isn’t it less intrusive to view information that someone has willingly put on the internet than to snoop around their home and visit their children at school? (Not that I think these are unnecessary!) But then we are assuming that our service users understand the notion that what we put on the internet is no longer our property, let alone that they know it can be viewed by a social worker or even used against them? This is where the idea of informed consent comes into play.

    I know the police use social media as a monitoring tool, but our cases aren’t as black and white as to ‘did they commit a crime or didn’t they?’. Don’t we have a duty to consider the ethical implications a bit more deeply than that? Plus we cannot forget our role as advocates for empowerment, would the use of social media as a monitoring tool make our service users feel even more wary of us, or are we just shooting ourselves in the foot by not using an information source that is so readily available to us?

  3. I am struggling with the same issue. I accepted a friend request from someone I didn’t realize was my client. Her name on facebook is a pseudonym and in a different language. I only realized later when a photo was posted. Now that it’s well after the fact, it is going to be a very difficult conversation when I defriend her. She works in a similar field so I understand her wanting to connect, but now I have no privacy. All sorts of personal information has already been viewed. I think I will start the conversation something like this….”I really appreciate that you were interested in me and wanted to reach out. I’ve been thinking about it and realized it doesn’t sit quite right with me. I reviewed our privacy policies and it seems I am actually in violation of our code in regards to having a ‘dual relationship.’ I’ve also done some research with my supervisor and was told that we are not allowed to connect with clients via social media so as not to violate any privacy issues both for the client and also for us, even when the client doesn’t feel it’s important….” And then I will let her know that I will need to de-friend her.

  4. I had a client start following me on a social media site. I changed my profile name and security settings and blocked the client. I felt that I would be crossing ethical professional boundaries had I allowed the ct. to continue to follow my page. I felt it was a potential breach of confidentiality as well as inhibit my ability to keep a strictly professional relationship as well as overly inherently self-disclosing.
    I did struggle with how to follow up after having blocked the ct.
    Suggestions?

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