Social workers & social media: Part I

Social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand should make greater use of social media for professional purposes.  By doing so they will contribute to a growing international community of practice, and realise benefits for social work in New Zealand.  That is the argument of this blog post, and two other posts to follow. I will explore the arguments and issues for practitioners and managers (part 1: this post), for academics and researchers (part 2: the next post), and for social work organisations (part 3: the final post).

At a recent conference of the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) Liz Beddoe and I indulged in one of our favourite distractions by setting up a conference backchannel (a social media practice where participants use Twitter, and other social media, to comment on an event or conference before, during and after it occurs).  We negotiated with the SWRB an official conference hashtag (#swrb13) and invited other conference participants to join us.  Although few in number we managed to create an online awareness of the conference and had our tweets retweeted by other social work tweeps across the globe.  All conference activity was archived using Storify (a social media tool for collating content related to an event or theme).

Afterwards, we wondered why social workers and social work academics in New Zealand don’t make greater use of social media.  In part we were reflecting on the significant presence of UK social workers and social work academics on Twitter, and the very active community of practice they have created there: including a Twitter journal club @swjcchat; a book club @SWBookClub; and many special interest groups: e.g. #madstudies, #disabilitystudies, #mhchat.

Social media in Aotearoa New Zealand

So why don’t social workers in New Zealand make greater us of social media for professional purposes?  Well, it’s probably not because they are less enthusiastic about social media.  New Zealanders are avid users of the internet and social media.  The top ten sites accessed during October 2013, with the proportion of New Zealanders accessing each, is shown in the list below (Adcorp, 2013):

  1. YouTube (55%)
  2. Facebook (53%)
  3. WordPress (19%)
  4. Tumblr (16%)
  5. LinkedIn (15%)
  6. MySpace (9%)
  7. Twitter (8%)
  8. Instagram (6%)
  9. Pinterest (6%)
  10. Flickr (3%)

Many, if not most, social workers are likely to use social media for personal purposes and for networking with whānau, family and friends.  If in the course of this social networking activity they bump up against a site that is professionally relevant, it seems likely that they might ‘like’ it. The fact that over 300 people (at the time of writing) have ‘liked’ the Facebook page of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) supports this view.  However, simply ‘liking’ a Facebook page falls short of the kind of active engagement and interaction that the use of social media for professional purposes can offer.

Why don’t social work practitioners and managers use social media for professional purposes?

Before addressing why social workers and social work mangers should use social media for professional purposes let’s consider why they don’t.  I can only speculate here but (leaving aside lack of time or interest) it’s possible they are concerned about the boundaries between their personal and professional lives.  Social media do have the unfortunate effect of blurring the distinction, and this can lead to some undesirable outcomes: such as breaching client confidentiality on Facebook (Robb, 2011).  Are there not then more reputational risks than benefits from social media for social workers?  Well, it’s true that the inappropriate use of social media has become a significant disciplinary issue for many industries.

In spite of the potential benefits, many social work employers prohibit access to social media sites during working hours, for fear that staff will waste time posting to personal sites, and perhaps because of worries that they might share work-related information inappropriately.  However, simply locking down access doesn’t really address the issue, and the exponential rise in smartphone access to social networks makes a controlling approach futile.  Social workers need professional advice and guidance on the use of social media (Reamer, 2011), and managers need to recognise the positive benefits that can flow from their effective use.  These issues are made more pressing when we recognise that not only do social workers need to manage their personal use of social media responsibly, they also need to consider how to manage relationships with clients online (a topic to which I will return to in part 3).

At the time of writing neither the SWRB or the ANZASW have specific social media policies. However, by way of an example, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) policy on social media includes the statement that:

‘BASW encourages the positive uses of social media, to which social workers should apply the values and principles of the Code of Ethics particularly developing professional relationships…upholding the values and reputation of the profession…maintaining professional boundaries…sharing information appropriately…maintaining confidentiality…managing and assessing risk…and challenging discrimination’  (BASW, 2012, p. 10)

In other words, although social media make our communications more visible to a wider public, the point for social workers to note is that they need to apply ‘the same principles, expectations and standards for interacting and communicating with people online as in other areas of practice’ (BASW, 2012, p. 10).  Breaches of professional codes with social media often involve sharing inappropriate material on personal sites, gross breaches of confidentiality, or practices that call into question the character of the social worker.  However, as Ermy (2012) puts it, ‘If someone doesn’t realise that disclosing details of a visit on their own blog is counter to professional codes of ethics, it isn’t because they don’t ‘get’ social media, it’s because they don’t ‘get’ professional codes of confidentiality’  (Ermy, 2012).

Why should social worker practitioners and managers use social media for professional purposes?

What then are the ‘positive uses of social media’ to which the BASW policy refers? I would include the following:

  • participation in a global community of practice;
  • access to informal learning opportunities;
  • awareness of breaking news affecting the social work profession at home and abroad;
  • access to new research findings, learning resources, and events;
  • a forum for exchanging ideas about innovative practice developments and initiatives.

Since this blog is an example of a social media tool, why not include your own thoughts on the benefits (or pitfalls) by commenting below? Here are the thoughts of a social work tweep called @ermintrude2.

Social work practitioners and managers aren’t just consumers of social media content. Many are creating their own content, and building their own professional communities of practice. The author of Fighting Monsters (an anonymous British social worker) argues that blogging allows social workers to represent their profession, challenge misconceptions, and engage in dialogue with service users (The Social Worker, 2011). More recently, Novell (2013) argued that sites like Twitter offer a distributed form of support for social workers and cites Clay Shirky’s claim that ‘…by turning us from passive consumers into active producers and sharers of content, the internet is creating a better, more democratic world’.  This sentiment may seem a little too utopian for some, and there is a negative side to the internet and to social media known only too well to social workers. However I believe the potential benefits of responsible professional networking with social media far outweigh the risks.

Nonetheless, for the benefits to be realised a critical mass of the social work community need to be able and willing to engage.  It needn’t be everyone, but more than the few.  Perhaps one way forward would be to learn from another of the initiatives arising spontaneously within the UK social work community?  @SocialCareCurry is an informal network of social work practitioners who use social media to coordinate meetings at different sites in the UK in order to eat curry and tweet. Yes, I know it sounds strange but the solidarity of strangers and friends united in a shared affection for social wok and kai just might be a practice that transcends national boundaries.  Interested in finding out?  Follow @NeilBallantyne & @BeddoeE

For a social work oriented introduction to twitter see JSWEC’s guide to using twitter

This piece is cross-posted on the Social Work Research in New Zealand blog, and is released under a Creative Commons attribution 3.0 license.

 

References

Adcorp. (2013). Social media statistics October 2013: Australia and New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.adcorp.co.nz/news-blog/Social-Media-Statistics-October-2013,-Australia-an

Ermy (2012, July 23). Can social media be taught? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://shirleyayres.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/can-social-media-be-taught/

BASW. (2012). BASW social media policy. Birmingham, England. Retrieved from http://cdn.basw.co.uk/upload/basw_34634-1.pdf

Nielsen (2010). Nielsen social media report: New Zealand wave 2: 2010 – Separating hype form reality. Auckland, New Zealand: Nielsen.

Novell, R. J. (2013, July 23). Social workers should use social media to challenge public perceptions. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2013/jul/23/social-workers-social-media-challenge-perception

Reamer, F.G. (2011, July 1). Eye on ethics: Developing a social media ethics policy. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_070111.shtml

Robb, M. (2011). Pause before posting: Using social media responsibly. Social Work Today11 (1), 8. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/020911p8.shtml

The Social Worker. (2011, April 7). Connected social workers: Technology brings professionals and users together. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/local-government-network/2011/apr/07/connected-social-workers-technology-lets-sector-speak

 

Image creditSean MacEntee

Neil Ballantyne

Neil is the Director of Learning Designs.