Social media is a growing issue for social workers, in terms of how they employ these communications platforms in their professional and personal lives.
We see its prevalence in discussions about our case work, in the press, in debates at conferences and, of course, in social media discussions. As the professional association for social work in the UK, members told us that it would help them if BASW produced a policy and guidance in this area, particularly relating to ethical dilemmas they are increasingly facing.
For example, what do you do if you find out that a looked after child in your care is using social media to contact their birth family in defiance of a contact order? Or how about the question of whether you should use social media as part of safeguarding investigations, or what you should do if you find your picture, name and address has been posted on the internet by a hostile group or individual?
Social media is not just a strong issue across the UK but international too – it was a major topic of discussion at the International Federation of Social Workers Conference in Stockholm in July.
The expert group of BASW members who worked with us on developing the policy drew on a range of evidence available, at home and abroad, to produce what I believe is a positive, balanced document that promotes the great benefits of social media while also highlighting the risks for social workers and service users.
The aim of the policy is to support social workers to use social media appropriately and ensure practice is based on BASW’s Code of Ethics. Even social workers who never use social media, or have no intention of ever doing so, may still find themselves confronted by practice dilemmas emergent from other people’s use of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, LinkedIn or some other platform.
One of the key messages to emerge from developing the policy is the need for all social workers to be ‘e-professionals’, a term used particularly by one of our group, Claudia Megele. It involves the ability to understand and use social media, as well as how to develop and manage it for networking, communication, CPD and developing inclusive practice.
Our working group emphasised that blogs, social networks, email or Twitter are exciting new channels for people to communicate, share knowledge, express creativity and connect with others who share similar interests.
However, the growing use of social media also means that social workers need to reflect on the changing nature of communication in their practice. The group stressed that social workers should use supervision to consider how this impacts on practice issues at the heart of social work, such as professional boundaries, confidentiality and the collection and use of information about and by individuals, particularly as part of safeguarding investigations.
The policy emphasises how social workers need to ensure that their online presence is professionally appropriate and that they protect themselves and service users from abuse and harassment.
The working group emphasised that social media is part of modern life and that social workers, in their practice, should support service users of all ages to use the opportunities that social networking offers but also to be aware of its potential and risks.
New technology has the capacity to bring about a radical shift in access to information and care services. In turn, as well as impacting on community and social lives, it can also change how families care for people, or how we as professionals care for people.
We need to consider how social workers and their organisations embrace this and offer clear, prominent and accessible advice about internet safety to ensure people get the most from the services on offer, including accessing aspects of provision using social networking. Employers and educators need to support and facilitate social workers, foster carers and other carers to learn about social media and to have the appropriate training they need to enable them to provide effective advice.
The nature of social media is that it is dynamic and rapidly changing, so we intend that the policy will be revised regularly with the help of members. As part of this process, all social workers are encouraged to share with us, through social media if appropriate or other means if not, any useful information or advice they have, as part of adding to the policy development process and engaging in an ongoing debate.
Fran McDonnell, BASW Policy Officer