Social workers need to understand that social networking is the equivalent of going on television – they are putting themselves in the public eye. If colleagues, employers or service users see what you have put on your page or profile then you could be in trouble. I’ve dealt with a number of students who have got into trouble because of what has been published on what they thought was a private space. One student recently failed a placement because she was posing provocatively with another member of staff. Her defence was that she had gone to some lengths to disguise some posters in the office but you could still see where she was working.
People often think that because they are only communicating with friends on sites such as Facebook that there won’t be a problem. But some of the so-called ‘friends’ found on such networking sites are little more than passing or historic acquaintances, offering little reassurance about where the pictures or comments you make available to them may end up – or who may see them. I’ve known of a number of social workers who have been before the care council regulatory committees, as a result of their use of social media, who utter the immortal words, “but it’s only my friends who can see it”. The response of the conduct committee could well be, however, that once their attention has been drawn to it by a complainant, it is their role to reflect on the behaviour. If in turn they find it is incompatible with the standards expected of a professional social worker, then the consequences are serious.
In order to be registered as a social worker you need to be of ‘good character’ so if you are shown online to be drunk and behaving inappropriately then your character may be called into question. It’s a minefield. You need to think carefully about how information or photographs could be interpreted. If, for example, you work with adults with learning disabilities and one service user sees a picture of you dressed provocatively then could there be an effect on your working relationship with them?
Privacy settings don’t offer the protection you may think they do. A Facebook friend could pass on your pictures to someone else, despite the fact you have set high privacy levels on your account. A lot of people are very naïve about social media and its power and breadth. It is so important to keep your professional and private life completely separate but unfortunately Facebook provides a bridge between the two. I’m not advising social workers and social work students not to use social media, just to make completely sure that they never allow it to have anything to do with work. For students, this means avoiding direct links with their placement or university course.
Because social media is, in effect, a publishing and broadcasting medium, you need to be acutely aware of your professional position. I have worked as a social worker with children and it is usually the policy of local authorities not to let anything be published which may identify a child in care or any child without the express permission of the parents.
Apart from issues around good character, there is an implied mutual obligation of trust and confidence between you and your employer. It is very easy to breach that on a social networking site. Employers tend to be very sensitive about their profile, image and business. Unfortunately people don’t think carefully enough about what they publish, and social media is regarded as publishing as much as putting something on the television or in a newspaper. You may have a very active social life but there’s a line between having one and advertising it.
You may also find yourself in trouble with colleagues if you put pictures of them on your profile without their permission. Just think very carefully before you add that comment or picture because you never know who may end up seeing or knowing about them, and considering them inappropriate or offensive.
In response to the increasing number of social workers falling foul of social networking disciplinary cases the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) issued social media guidance in August of 2011. It was published after Glasgow social worker Anne Lochrie was banned from practising following a conduct committee hearing which heard she had breached professional boundaries on several counts. One citation centred on her befriending the mother of a service user on Facebook.
View the guidance here www.sssc.uk.com