Why Social Workers Need Social Media

26th Sep 2015

Social media use among teenagers came to national attention recently when a 14-year-old boy was placed on record for sending a picture of himself naked to a female class mate via the Snapchat app.

Snapchat posts disappear after 24 hours, but the prank went horribly wrong for the boy when his picture was saved by the girl onto her phone and then sent out to her friends and followers via text, Snapchat and Facebook.

For more details of the safeguarding issues around this incident, Nigel Boulton recently explained more in his blog on sexting.

For now, I’d rather look more at the impact social media is having on the lives of social workers and the people they work with. It also has to be stressed that these communication technologies can be wholly positive – as well as negative. Often the national press dwells on the sordid aspects of social media without playing up the positive side.

Different social media tools

When I talk about social media I’m referring mainly to the well known tools and associated networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, YouTube, on-line blogs, Snapchat, Wickr and Foursquare. But there are many more and new ones being adopted or invented each month.

Social media is ubiquitous. It’s part of life and we have to get used to it. I recently read statistics stating more than 80% of 14-24 year olds no longer watch any terrestrial TV. They solely use social media networks such as YouTube, Instagram and Facebook for their entertainment.

It’s worth also noting that many media companies have been quick to understand this and now embed news, videos, games etc into social media networks without any click throughs to external sites. For example, teenage boys can now watch the latest football results as they happen directly in Snapchat. Meanwhile, teenage girls can log onto their favourite YouTube blogger (or vlogger) to watch the latest make up and fashion tips; and these vloggers are now cyber celebrities in their own right with no connection to terrestrial media.

So young people and – to an increasing degree – their parents and older people are relying on such technologies for entertainment, information, social connections and, importantly, for personal help and advice. Women subjected to domestic violence, for instance, set up their own private Facebook support groups and there a many mental health and learning disabilities groups on Twitter and Facebook.

The new normal

The use of social media is now the new normal.  Service user preferences for these types of online communication with social workers and practitioners are increasing and must be urgently considered.

Many social workers use social media in their professional and personal lives, but there are also huge numbers who eschew its use for various reasons. Some simply don’t like the technology or the invasion of their privacy, while others are against it for ethical reasons. These include dilemmas on how to deal with friend requests on Facebook, who to follow on Twitter and also the huge issue of online trolling, particularly around women. But, again, these are just the negatives.

In the past year, I’ve been asked by many colleagues about how to use social media as a tool or how to use it as a community strategy. The most obvious one used by councils is the local website’s Facebook page giving updates of council services.

But the truth is that social media is far more than just a push mechanism to alert people to bin collections or local festivals. It’s also more than a complaint hotline to the council. It can be a really valuable tool for creating and engaging with communities.

In my research I have come across a plethora of documents developed by schools of social work that fail to address the professional use of social media.  Most information tends to advise caution about how it is used in private and legal matters around confidentiality.

All this is important, of course. But often a risk averse culture fails to engage with the world outside.

The social work profession has to embrace social media as a tool to assist and support with engagement, to inform assessments and investigations and to communicate with the service users and public.

Online in real time

As life online starts to exist more in real time, there is clearly a reluctance by our profession to adopt internet-based interventions, rather than to embrace them.  Surely social media can assist us with an uplift in, capture of and enhancement of our practice?

As social media use continues to evolve and expand, social worker practice too must grow with this to make use of this technology within the realm of professional practice and ethical decision-making.

Some of these benefits from a professional point of view include the ability to communicate and network with on-line communities that expand local or provincial/territorial restrictions, and to share information and resources with a wider audience at a low cost.

We can also use this to build community, to promote research, and to impart ideas and expertise on issues that impact on health and well being.

Below is an infographic from the US showing the increasing interdependence between social workers and social media