Welcome to The New Social Worker's Blog

The New Social Worker is the quarterly magazine for social work students and recent graduates, focusing on social work careers for those new to the profession. This blog is a companion to the free online magazine at http://www.socialworker.com.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Must I Un-Friend Facebook? Exploring the Ethics of Social Media

The ethics article in the Summer 2011 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER addresses ethical issues related to social networking.  Is it possible to be a "blank slate" therapist in the era of social media?  Is it desirable or necessary for social workers to remove themselves from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites?  What are the ethical implications of NOT staying up-to-date and current on these technologies, which may be a big part of clients' lives?  Is there a happy medium?

Read the article at http://bit.ly/nPhATM and post your comments here.  We would like to hear your thoughts.

Linda Grobman, ACSW, LSW


  1. Stirring the big spoon here...honestly, articles such as this make me a little sad. We've been emailing and blogging and sharing our lives with one another using technologies for nearly 20 years, and I wish we could get to a point where we could accept and embrace technologies and their potential while being cognizant of risks involved and creating good policies around their use. Instead of integrating our whole selves into our public, professional personas, which for a lot of reasons may not be feasible for some folks, we are encouraged to build these boundaries or eschew social media entirely. It's like blaming a hammer for a nail in the wall - the technology is not the enemy here and will always evolve to allow new ways to connect, share, and yes exploit.

    So what policy makes sense for you? I enjoy being my authentic self in public because it helps me meet and connect with others who do the same, and I find these conversations and interactions provocative, enriching, and memorable. At its best it's like touching upon actual humanity in public where others can join in. My general policy is not to share publicly anything I wouldn't want my mother to read or to show up on say the New York Times. For those in direct practice with clients, I encourage you to create a policy that makes sense for you but I would use "end all participation in social media" as a last, probably unnecessary resort. Plenty of clinicians use social media to talk about their practice (NOT using client details or any identifying information), their philosophy around the treatment they are using, connect with other workers online to help grow their thought process, and create a policy about how to interact with current and former clients on social media. For example, I've been teaching for over 3 years and will not friend current students or students who may be in my courses in the future. But after class is over certainly let's continue the conversation!

  2. Karen, the link you posted is an excellent resource.  Thank you for posting that.

    Lisa Kays' article in The New Social Worker brings up some good points about use of social media by therapists. And it shows a social work student/new social worker who is wondering about personal and professional boundaries. I think all students go through some of this, whether it is about social media or other issues, as part of becoming a professional. Hopefully, more schools of social work will begin to incorporate more in the curriculum about social media, to provide more guidance in this area.

    I think the question of whether to “friend” a direct client or not is clear cut. I think there are some real ethical questions and risks for practitioners to consider when using social media, and I'm glad that people are talking/writing about those. There are many, many good professional uses of social media that a lot of people may not realize exist. I use social media extensively to connect with other social work professionals, and I have collaborated with colleagues via the Internet in one way or another since the early to mid-1990s.  I think with what is now called "social media," there is another layer to consider, and that is the fact that so much can be found publicly about people, sometimes unintentionally.  I think some people have a false sense of anonymity online, and this can be problematic.

    I like your suggestion of finding a policy that works for you.  I think Lisa did this (and was continuing to work toward it) by the end of her article. A lot depends on why the person is using social media. For social workers in direct practice, a lot depends on the type of practice and issues unique to that practice. As social media sites evolve, uses of them change, and this can cause some unforeseen issues. Social workers need to think about how they want to present themselves in public, whether online or offline. As social media is changing in nature almost constantly, I think this is an ongoing process.

    Another side to all this is that social workers may have clients for whom social media is important, whether it is a positive thing or is problematic in some way (e.g., cyberbullying)>

  3. Excellent post. This is something I've thought a lot about as well.

    A couple points I'd like to make:

    1. I agree with the above that it is very much up to the individual to decide what level of transparency suits their individual needs when it comes to social media and the internet. That said, many people are ignorant to how social media works (e.g. how many times have you heard of someone publishing a status update they thought they were sending to one person). Again, this is still the responsibility of the individual to educate themselves, but I like the idea of touching on this topic in schools, as it will only continue to become more and more common.

    2. Regarding whether or not to "friend" clients - I agree with the comment above again. It should be clear-cut, meaning, you're policy should either be you friend clients, or you don't. My personal opinion is that you shouldn't. No need to worry about their hurt feelings. Simply send them a message back and/or tell them "Sorry, I've decided it was best not to friend clients of mine on Facebook." They shouldn't take it personally if you make it seem like "policy" - something you do for everyone.

    3. Last point, which actually somewhat ties to my first point regarding educating yourself on these platforms before using them, is I have been able to find a good middle ground for myself using Privacy settings - particularly on Facebook. It takes a little time and research, but you really do have the option of showing or not showing anything you want, even to certain segments of people. For example, you can literally tag all your clients into a group called "Clients" and choice to hide things such as pictures, wall posts, etc. from just that group. Point being, a little research goes a long way and the sophistication of these platforms allow social workers to choose their level of comfort.

    Thanks again for a great post. I may write something similar on my website soon becoming a social worker

  4. In regard to point #3, Susan, it is true that you can use privacy settings to keep certain things private or only show them to certain lists of "friends."  However, they may be able to see things that others tag you in, such as a photo or video.  Also, social workers need to think about what the purpose is of anything they do regarding a client.  What would be the therapeutic purpose of frriending a client, or of having a whole group of client friends?  How would this work, confidentiality-wise?  What would a social worker post to a group of clients on Facebook?  If the purpose is some kind of group intervention, is this the best place/way to do it?