Social work ethics and social media

As has I’m sure become obvious, I am quite enthusiastic about the advocacy opportunities of social media for nonprofit organizations–blogs, photo and file sharing, social networking. In my own practice, I’m more connected with my students and better able to share content, solicit feedback, and develop deep relationships thanks to my use of social media. I think the possibilities for nonprofits are immense, in terms of bringing in new donors, connecting in new ways with clients, and raising the profile of their advocacy issues.

BUT, and it’s a significant but, I remain concerned about how social workers will navigate these new technologies without compromising our ethical standards. It’s certainly not the first time that we’ve had to adapt our ethical strictures to new sets of challenges: the advent of videorecording and cellular phones and laptop computers all raised issues about informed consent and confidentiality in slightly different ways than in the past. I am confident that we can find ways to work within these emerging technologies while remaining faithful to our profession’s ethical code, but what concerns me most is that I don’t see much discussion of the real dilemmas here–and we know that, in ethics, what we don’t consciously debate often gets us into trouble.

As with all ethical dilemmas, there are no easy answers (if there were, we wouldn’t have dilemmas, just crises of moral courage!), but here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself. I’d love to start a dialogue about this with social workers and social media types–how do we strike the right balance? A former student and I had this discussion about a week ago, and she raised some ideas that I hadn’t considered. Social workers out there using social media, how are you staying true to our ethics?

  • Every social media expert advises that success requires an infusion of ‘personality’ in order to connect with one’s followers. I get this–I see that I receive much more response to tweets or Facebook updates, for example, that include some personal tidbit–but it makes me wonder, when does this raise the risk of dual relationships? How much disclosure is too much disclosure? How do we engage with our targets without blurring those boundaries in potentially harmful ways? Should you ever ‘friend’ a client? Now that the opportunity exists, is it harmful to the professional relationship to decline?
  • What about confidentiality? While any ethical social worker would refrain from including personal details about clients in social media interactions, is it ethical to, for example, include some of the outline of a client interaction on a personal blog? Assuming that all identifying information is changed, does that make it okay? What about if the blog receives ad revenue that goes directly to the social worker?
  • Should social workers be allowed to blog or post or tweet about their organizational life, including frustrations with their practice setting? You see employees do this all the time, from “TGIF” Facebook updates on a Friday afternoon to generic “so sick of my boss” comments on different sites, but, given social workers’ obligation to our employers, are we forbidden from engaging in this kind of catharsis?
  • Where do we draw the line between ‘work’ social media use and ‘personal’? If you’re at work updating the agency’s Facebook page and you see that a real-life friend of yours, who’s also a fan of your agency, has posted something about her life that you feel deserves a response, can you respond on ‘company’ time in your official capacity representing the organization, or is that a ‘friend’ activity that needs to happen on your own time?
  • Given the viral and unpredictable nature of social media use, how can we really ever receive informed consent from our clients for their participation? For example, a client gives permission for a photo to be posted on the agency’s blog, but then the blog gets tracked back by several other blogs, and someone tweets the post…and this is exactly what your organization wants, in terms of the response from the community, but now many more people have seen it, and in different contexts, and probably with adding their own commentary…and that’s not what you told the client when you asked permission.

    Those are the dilemmas I have wrestled with so far. What do you think? What am I missing? What guidance can we expect from our Code of Ethics in these areas of continual evolution? What should be our guide when the Code is inadequate?

  • 14 responses to “Social work ethics and social media

    1. Though each of your points deserves significant discussion, I suspect that your last bullet actually covers a fair amount of what you have questioned earlier in your post.

      Social media and social networks, by their very nature, cannot provide predictable controls over who will ultimately have access to what is posted – regardless of one’s privacy settings. As a consequence, any post needs to be written with the understanding that anyone could eventually see it. That being the case, I would suggest an extremely conservative use of these media by providers. If you wouldn’t stand in your waiting room, or in your parking lot and loudly proclaim it, I wouldn’t post it either.

      Agencies perhaps have more leeway in posting to social media and social networking sites than do providers but, there again, client and staff disclosures need to be treated as if they were public documents. Though it perhaps sounds obvious to say that, the reality is that many professionals forget this. The three reasons I see most frequently for this are that:

      1.) These sites make it so easy to post impulsively and many folks do. “Send’ is hit before the implications of the post are really thoroughly considered.

      2.) Agency policies and training on social media use are still rare and, unfortunately, are frequently horribly inadequate when they do occur.

      3.) Many people feel that social media and social networking sites somehow magically exist in a place detached from the rest of the internet and genuinely don’t imagine that what they post will be both visible and searchable online for a loooong time.

      As for guidance from the ethics codes… The absence of specific mention of social media and social networking may not be as much of a hinderance as it seems. After all, the NASW, APAs, and ACA codes all stress the need for informed consent, the need to protect client confidentiality, and the importance of placing a client’s emotional needs before those of the provider. Attention to these mandates, in themselves, should provide a considerable amount of guidance even if social networks and social media sites aren’t mentioned by name.


      • Thanks so much for your insights, Christopher. I think you’re correct that many of the ethical lapses we see related to social media could be rectified by simultaneous reinforcement of ethics (something that I think all social work agencies could use) and greater understanding of social media and its nature. Certainly social workers, and other professionals, are expected to have internalized highly developed ethical codes, given the impossibility of any external Code covering all possible contingencies. The greatest areas of “gray” that I see, where organizations and practitioners are likely to need some additional guidance, relate to those concepts of ‘dual relationship’, and the whole idea of how much authority agencies should have over their employees’ private lives. So, for example, where the NASW Code prohibits dual relationships that could be harmful, there’s likely a need for some discussion of how refusing to enter into a dual relationship could, in the context of social media, be potentially harmful, too. Where there’s no absolute prohibition, practitioners need some guidance and clients deserve some consistency and protection. And the other area that really vexes me is this idea of when better safe than sorry becomes an indefensible intrusion into social workers’ lives. It’s probably best, really, for social work practitioners to avoid the use of social media when their entry into that field could always be problematic (in terms of clients wanting to connect through that media, and then a difficult overlapping of roles), but social workers also deserve the networking and social outlet that social media can provide. It parallels, in some ways, the challenges agencies have faced in light of restrictions on political activity, but, there, most agencies have decided that what social workers do in their “off” time should be basically off-limits to agency control. The beauty of social media, of course, is that it transcends those boundaries, but that’s also precisely what makes it more difficult for our profession to navigate. I appreciate your comments and would love to hear more what you think about our profession’s ethical practice–and I’m following you on Twitter now, so I’ll look forward to staying connected! –melinda

    2. Agreed on all counts, Melinda.

      I have started talking explicitly about social networking and social media issues in my ethics programs for mental and behavioral health professionals and there has been considerable interest from attendees. For the most part, I’ve found that the existing ethics codes translate fairly well into reasonable guidelines for social media and social networking use. The bigger problem – as always – is to assure that folks really consider the relevant ethical mandates in the course of their day-to-day and minute-to-minute decision-making.

      Interesting point about how a refusal to enter into a relationship online could be harmful. At least so far, only the ACA ethics code explicitly suggests that contacts outside of treatment could be appropriate (attendance at weddings, graduations, etc.) That said, though, even those types of ‘extra-therapy’ contacts need to be approached with considerable caution AND their ‘publicness’ is far more limited than any online activity can possibly be.

      As for how much control an agency can/should have over outside online correspondence, I’m not sure that I believe there is an absolute right and wrong. What I do think, though, is that agencies need to get on the ball and write online use policies that are clear, reasonable and enforceable so that employees know where the line is for them. The fact is that, like in all industries, clinical and non-clinical agency employees are using these media anyway – they need guidelines on what is and is not acceptable as well as a clear explanation of their agency’s policy’s rationale.

      Thanks for the Twitter follow! If you’re interested in social media and social networking issues, I sometimes write about them on my blogs as well as occasionally covering them in my Weekly Ethics Thought. You can get info on both on my website (

      Looking forward to staying connected as well!

      (Now, who else out there has thoughts on this issue as well??) 🙂

    3. Hi Melinda –

      Thanks for the thoughtful post (and to Christopher for his thoughtful comments). It’s a fascinating and important topic, and a great one to use with students, since social networking is so much part of their world. I just wrote a post on my health care ethics blog (healthcareorganizationalethics) in response to your excellent questions, but it’s too long to copy here.

      It’s always great meeting kindred spirits on the web!



      • Jim, you’re absolutely right about the tie-in with students; practical application in general helps ethical discussions to resonate with students, and the social media topic in particular has really sparked some interesting questions and very strong reactions. Thanks for your blog resource, and for contributing to the conversation! –melinda

    4. I am hosting a discussion around Social Work and the Ethics of using Social Media here in Philadelphia, PA and would like your input on the matter.


      Marcos O. Almonte
      Supervisor Congreso de Latinos Unidos

      • How exciting! I’ve tried to lay out what I see as some of the related issues here, and I know that there has been some scholarly discussion of similar concerns recently; I believe The New Social Worker had an article last November or so? But, obviously, these are still emerging technologies and, so, emerging issues for social work practitioners, too. What kind of assistance are you looking for?

    5. Hi Melinda, this is a really interesting topic and it definitely needs to be addressed. I completely agree with Jim that this is a great topic to present to students as I am currently one and studying Social Work. I had the opportunity to do an internship with a public helping agency. When I saw how clients’ facebook posts were being used for or against them I had some uneasy feelings about the use of social networking. Agencies should not be able to control how employees use these networks outside of the job. However, employees should know what boundaries not to cross when using these networks. If boundaries aren’t set in place then there is a risk of ‘dual relationships’ which can harm the work in progress. Again, employees who use these sites should know what boundaries not to cross. As for the comments such as ‘TGIF’, that could simply mean that employees are looking forward to spending some uninterrupted time with their families. I think it’s important not to read too much into those posts that don’t specify a particular person, place, or thing. While social workers deserve the right to use social networks it can present a problem when refusing to connect with a client. I feel that the worker should explain his/her concerns to the client and I don’t see there being as much of a problem with connecting after the professional relationship has ended. As I stated earlier, I am a student and still have a lot to learn about how social networks can effect the helping process. In the end I think that social workers should use their ultimate judgement in the matter and not make any decisions that can compromise their positions or the privacy of those they help. Thank you all for posting the information that you have. This will help me greatly in the future.

    6. Thanks for your comment, Angela. As you describe, it is a balance–while we might want to have a strict policy in order to avoid the risk of abuses, there are certainly advantages in terms of relationship building that we can’t afford to sacrifice. You’re right that so much of any communication is open to interpretation (like the TGIF comment, which could or could not be seen as derogatory to the job and one’s clients). But the onus for communicating respectfully and appropriately is definitely on us, as the professionals. I have some teaching colleagues around the country who have recently posted things like “ugh, classes starting again,” and I just feel strongly that that sends the wrong message about our students and our joint endeavor in education. Some might say that that’s unduly burdening the private communications of social workers, but we signed on to this profession and agreed to live by its Code all the time, not just when we’re on the clock. I am excited that you’re entering this profession so thoughtfully and earnestly; that curiosity and ethical commitment will serve you, and your clients, very well! I welcome your comments and questions as we learn together!

    7. This was a very interesting topic. There are so many people using social media to communicate, sharing photos and just day to day chit chat. This would be the perfect setting to create a dual relationship, to post something hurtful or to invade the privacy of a client. Depending on the information shared, it could also become a problem for a client and a professional worker. It is so easy to write a remark or send a photo and once you hit that send button, you can’t take it back. Those photos you posted can be copied and edited and re-spread over the Internet.

      In my opinion, I don’t believe as a social worker, one should be posting on company time, or posting anything related to work or their clients. As a social worker we would and should be held accountable for the use of the ethical code guidelines. Since there is no way to monitor what each individual posts and no Internet cop to make sure that no one posts anything that would hurt someone, then it should be kept out of social work professionals workplace.

      I believe that there are situations where some organizations can use the social media for organizational purposes. Their media accounts can be used as advertising, business related material and not expose any personal information on employees, or clients in general. These sites should also be monitored by a company technician at all times.

      I think it all really comes down to each individual and their moral character and how much the company is willing to risk by allowing this type of interactions.

      • Thank you so much for your comments, Vicki! You’re so right about the permanence of what we put out online, and about how damaging that can be…to our clients, our organizations, and our profession. But, as you also point out, there is real value that can be created by social workers engaging the public in their work through social media…presenting the importance of what their agencies do and the reasons that they deserve support. And, I would argue, there are some ethical concerns about refusing to engage clients at all in an increasingly important sphere…that we may be sending the message that we only want our interactions with them to fit into approved ‘slots’, and that we can’t/won’t meet them where they really are.
        Who would you envision, within agencies, as those who would monitor social workers’ use of social media for agency purposes? How does that align with our understanding of professional discretion? There are always risks, of course, that individuals (social workers or not) will behave in ways that are harmful to clients and to the agency’s wishes. Social media just opens up some new potential avenues for that. What can we learn from how we deal with other arenas of risk, for lessons in this new medium?
        Thank you again for your feedback!

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