What are some considerations when using social networking sites?
Elizabeth*, a social work supervisor, shared that many social workers employed by her agency communicate with each other through Facebook. Several of the social workers had posted “mean-spirited” and “derogatory” comments about other agency workers, under the apparent assumption that their privacy settings on the networking site would prevent general access to their comments. They did not realize that a couple of the participants had not set their privacy settings properly and that several of their unprofessional comments are now circulating among other agency workers.
A social worker, Selena, raised yet another ethical issue of a similar nature. She had created a Facebook page a few years earlier and now realizes that she did not fully understand how to control her privacy settings. Selena explained that for nearly two years, she has been provided counselling services to a client, Andy, who struggles with anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Andy reportedly became obsessed with Selena and was determined to find out information about her personal life. He searched for Selena on Facebook and found her site. Unbeknownst to her, Andy was able to view a number of Selena’s personal photos on the site and other personal posts. Andy left disturbing voice mail messages for Selena that made explicit references to information on the Facebook page. Selena expressed that she felt as if this electronic incursion had severely compromised her clinical relationship with Andy.
*names changed to protect identities
Today, judging from the widespread usage of virtual social networking on both professional and individuals’ levels, ethical concepts involved in its use is becoming increasingly complex. Ethical concerns surrounding online social networking among social work practitioners have fast become a perennial issue since Voluntary Welfare Organizations (VWOs) and government agencies jumped on the band wagon of utilizing social media platforms for fundraising/promotional activities of charity or community events. Despite unresolved concerns for social work ethics including breach of confidentiality and risk of harm to clients, there is still no regulation established to address them.
Despite a lack of formal regulation in managing social work practitioners’ use of social media platforms, it is undoubtedly vital to exercise certain levels of discretion in their online activities and behaviors in their everyday lives. Conceptually, activities on social media platforms are no different from activities in public domains. Hence, social work practitioners need to conduct themselves with the same decorum as they would in public.
On an organizational front, it is a management imperative to have regulations with regard to the use of social media platforms in place for employees. While it may not be realistic to regulate every Facebook post/comment from each employee, it is still important to convey a consistent message that the exercising of professionalism in social work practitioners goes beyond their working hours and physical workspaces.
On an individual level, it is also crucial for social work practitioners to impose self-governing measures to manage their personal social media accounts with caution. Social work practitioners who are active in their social media platforms need to possess knowledge to put appropriate privacy settings in place and purposefully exercise discretion in their social media activities/involvement. The impact of not understanding rules of privacy settings on Facebook is akin to practitioners having a lack of work-related training to perform adequately in their jobs.
I would propose each agency to come up guidelines in maintaining appropriate use of social media usage among social work practitioners. IT-related instructions on observing certain privacy settings and data protection related knowledge on social media sites should also be included in the guidelines. Taking this step too contributes to the ongoing development of good practices in social service agencies, not unlike the development of the newly implemented Code of Social Work Practice in FSCs (CSWP).
As for Selena’s case, it is certainly unfortunate that her private information got leaked on a social media site. However, due to the gravity of the matter, damage control measures such as deleting her Facebook account and even other social media accounts should be discussed with her supervisor. As for Selena’s clinical relationship with Andy, a case transfer to another worker and/or agency would also need to be considered.
Communication is essential between worker and client in any counselling session. These days, worker has to be creative in reaching out to their client via social media such as Facebook (FB), Twitter, Instagram etc. It is commendable that the worker is willing to connect their client virtually and 24/7. However, worker must exercise caution when going virtual. Any comments online might be exposed to public one day. I set up a FB account for work too so as to better communicate with my clients. This account is my professional account and set to private. That means only group members are allowed to read or contribute to the account. Of course, privacy settings are very important and thus we must make sure all private settings are on before inviting anyone into the FB account.
Referring to Principles of Professional Ethics under SASW in Singapore, one of Social Worker’s responsibility is to make sure that a case is not discussed outside the professional context. I believe by going into FB, we are already discussing outside the professional context. Therefore, what can we post on FB? I believe it will be wise to limit the usage of FB to that of encouraging people.
Another principle I would like to highlight under SASW is that Social workers should treat with respect the professional judgment, statements and actions of colleagues. In this paragraph, we learn that we should respect each other’s opinion and not post some ‘derogatory’ comments on other agency colleagues. This would reflect badly as a helping agency and as a counsellor or social worker. As a people helper, our language should always be positive. In dealing with conflictual opinions, we may want to talk to our supervisor so that they are aware of what is happening and are able to assist or mediate. Harmony within the agency and with other helping professionals is essential as social work is not a “one man show”. Therefore we must learn to handle differences in opinions in a mature and professional manner.
In my personal opinion, it would be good to keep the virtual conversations brief and short and always encourage the client to see the worker face to face, rather than depend on FB or any other source of virtual contact. FB or any online interactions should be restricted just to sharing of photos, happy thoughts and encouraging one another virtually. Any negative comments or angry thoughts should be discussed face to face or one to one basis. This way, worker can connect to client personally and can deal with the emotions immediately. Of course, before inviting, it would be good to brief the client about the purpose in the FB. The purpose should be steered towards encouraging and supporting each other virtually, since the worker can’t be there 24/7 for them. Once the purpose is being established, it would be a lot easier in the future for any online communication.
Medical Social Worker
1. What are relevant ethical concepts involved in social workers’ use of social networking sites?
2. My opinion about the use of such sites?
It is like swimming in the open sea. You won’t know what kind of animals you will attract. Information posted on social networking platforms can be circulated widely within a very short period of time. The audience is unforgiving, the consequences are severe and there is no room for error. There have been several examples of careers being destroyed when people express their views uninhibited on social media. Users of such platforms must understand that they will have to be professional about what they communicate on these sites. They should remain focused on the objectives of using social networking in the professional context.
3. Suggest ways to engage in social networking yet steer clear of ethical issues.
Loh Chee Meng
Defining the issue: The New Normal
Throughout the history of the profession, social workers have always needed to update ethical standards in response to new developments and changing circumstances in the profession and the broader society. For example, the emergence of HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s required social workers to think differently about circumstances that warrant disclosure of confidential information, without a client’s consent, in order to protect a third party from harm. Traditional duty-to-protect guidelines, developed years before HIV and AIDS emerged, were no longer sufficient.
Similarly, the invention of the Internet and e-mail has created previously unknown ethical issues to deal with. These then-new electronic communication options have forced the profession to develop new ethical standards related to informed consent, confidentiality, and client protection.
The relatively recent advent of electronic social networking sites has created yet another ethical challenge in social work and an opportunity to develop ethical guidelines designed to protect clients, as well as practitioners. The two most relevant ethics concepts are boundaries and privacy.
Boundaries in an Electronic Age
In recent years, social workers have developed a much richer and nuanced appreciation of boundary issues and dual relationships. The profession’s literature now includes in-depth discussions of issues related to social workers’ social relationships and friendships with former clients, encounters with clients in small communities, self-disclosure, and managing gifts and invitations that practitioners receive from clients –to simply name a few. Only recently, however, have social workers explored the complex boundary implications created by electronic social networking sites. In effect, postings on social networking sites may constitute an inadvertent form of self-disclosure to clients and colleagues who explore these sites.
As with any form of self-disclosure, personal Internet postings to which clients and others have access may complicate social workers’ professional relationships. Clients who learn personal details about social workers’ lives may experience complex and counterproductive transference. For instance, someone in recovery from alcohol abuse may be conflicted upon seeing photos of her social worker drinking at a lively party. Another client who has fantasies about developing a social relationship with his social worker may have strong feelings about seeing photos of her in a swim suit taken during a recent vacation.
Social workers who consider maintaining a social networking site should pay close attention to standards in the NASW Code of Ethics concerning boundaries and dual relationships: “Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or a former client in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm.”
Social workers’ electronic social networking sites also pose several privacy challenges. Those who do not create adequate privacy protections run the risk of inadvertent and potentially embarrassing self-disclosure. This over-exposure may interfere negatively in social workers’ relationships with clients. Also, social workers who use social networking sites to discuss work-related controversies or to gossip or complain about colleagues may expose themselves to allegations of unprofessional behaviour. Such inappropriate postings can jeopardize their careers and trigger allegations that they defamed colleagues’ character. In this regard, practitioners should be mindful of the SASW Code of Ethics admonition that "social workers treat with respect the professional judgement, statements and actions of colleagues"  as "effective service depends on co-operation among professional disciplines and others with due regard to respective areas of competence".
Indeed, social workers must always remain vigilant to ethical challenges in the profession that evolve and change over time.
 NASW section 1.07 [c]
 SASW Section B No.2
 SASW Section B No.1