Lessons learned from a private Facebook support group

May 5, 2015

hswIn general, social workers have been early adopters of new technology, especially if the technology replaces face-to-face interactions with clients. Social workers value nonverbal behavior, interview techniques such as silent pauses, and the importance of relationships in the clinical encounter. Social media and applications are less amenable to communicating nonverbal information and relationship cues.

However, there have been situations in which the use of social media can facilitate social work with clients, especially clients who have difficulty meeting with social workers in a face-to-face environment. One such instance is social work with family caregivers of patients in hospice. Family caregivers may not be at liberty to leave the patient for the time period needed to meet with a social worker, and coordinating schedules of caregivers in order to convene a support group would be especially onerous.

Recently, in an issue of Health and Social Work, Debra Parker Oliver, PhD, Karla Washington, PhD, MSW, Elaine Wittenberg-Lyles, PhD, Ashley Gage, PhD, Megan Mooney, MSW, and George Demiris, PhD, published their results from a study of using a secret Facebook support group to address the needs of family caregivers of hospice patients. Facebook allows for three types of groups: open, in which anyone can join; closed, which can be searched, but not participated in, by outsiders; and secret, which involves only those allowed to participate by the administrator. The administrator allows the most privacy, and members are invited specifically by the administrator.

The participants in the group were bereaved family members who had provided informal caregiving (medication management, personal care, etc.) to their loved ones while they were enrolled in hospice programs. A social worker facilitator managed the group, and regularly posted questions and links to educational material. An comprehensive “Rules of Conduct for Participation” was posted for the participants to read.

The authors continue to detail the findings of their study. They found interesting variations in group participation, based on time, questions asked, material posted, etc. Members were able to post and comment themselves, and many did so.

The authors also include with the article a table showing the conformance of secret Facebook group protocols to NASW and ASWB Technology Standards. The information and experiences gleaned from this study encourages further social work use of social media platforms with appropriate attention to NASW guidelines.

The authors conclude:

Facebook secret groups offer social workers an additional tool to enhance support to patients and families given the geographic barriers that exist for traditional face-to-face support. Whereas this project focused on caregivers in bereavement, similar strategies should apply to active caregivers.

This study indicates that the technology can be useful when manages by a social worker facilitator. As social workers continue to explore helpful ways to use technology with clients, it is critical that they evaluate that practice and assess the clinical outcomes to establish an evidence base behind this practice.