Technology is firmly now part and parcel of our daily lives, embedded in our culture and transcending our whole lives – professional, personal and those grey areas in between. So what are the rules of engagement for those of us who are either qualified and registered social workers or those on the pathway to qualification?
Do we have absolute freedom in our use of social media or are there constraints and obligations to which we need to adhere? More specifically to social work, is it a medium that we should be using with service users and, if so, what are the parameters to that interaction? Where risk and protection are a central focus, is social media a legitimate tool to aid social workers in their assessments of individuals, such as a parent’s suitability to care for and safeguard their child?
We know the old mantra, ‘with rights come responsibilities’, much chanted by politicians in debates about law and order and usually while, metaphorically at least, wagging a finger of disapproval. But perhaps a more appropriate quote for social work professionals would be the related line uttered by Spiderman Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben … “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Yes, we social workers are human beings who have personal lives and like everyone else we should be entitled to enjoy certain freedoms in whatever ways we decide to chill out. Yet we should never forget who we are and we have no choice but to be conscious of our decision-making in both our professional and personal lives, especially as they are not always mutually exclusive.
Social media offers so much potential in promoting what is, after all, a social worker’s ‘bread and butter’ – social interaction. As such, it might be expected that the social work profession would be at the forefront of this growth industry. Yet, for a number of reasons the two socials, ‘work’ and ‘media’ aren’t as unified as they might be.
Of course, not every social worker is a Facebook aficionado or accustomed to tweeting. Some may regard these burgeoning communications platforms as negative because of how they entrench of digital divide, others may feel threatened by the challenges it poses to their power base.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have social workers who are completely immersed in social media, something likely to become the norm for successive younger generations – albeit there will always be new technologies and new forms of media to challenge each generation as it gradually moves to towards middle age.
Whatever our particular standpoint, however, social workers can’t afford to be oblivious or even ignorant of social media. Its growing currency in many people’s lives make it a part of the social landscape that professional social workers need to understand. If we choose to engage on a personal level with Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, for instance, we need to do so within boundaries that keep ourselves and others safe.
Engaging with it professionally means ensuring that we comply with our professional codes – BASW’s Code of Ethics and our regulatory codes of practice – as well as the policy directives of often hyper-cautious employers.
While some social work employers have embraced social media in some areas of their work – just look at how your local authority took to Twitter to update the world about its gritting activities during the snow and ice of recent days – many approach it cautiously, and especially so in social work. It is why we may feel it necessary to challenge or at least influence employers to see social media as an opportunity rather than a threat for both social workers and service users.
We often hear about the need for social work departments and teams to develop a ‘learning culture’, particularly in the fall-out from tragedies, such as a child protection-related death. All too often, however, it is just talk, like yet another holy grail that we eternally pursue without success – or even a genuine commitment to attain.
It need not be so. In my view, social media has a huge part to play in the establishment of a genuine learning culture in both academic institutions and our workplaces but this can only be brought about by a cultural revolution which, like many other revolutions, is usually the result of a popular movement from the ground up.
I will admit to being staggered by the velocity of change in technological development in a relatively short space of time; civilisation as we know it came to an end in our house over the weekend as a result of our TV giving up the ghost. At just five or six years-old I don’t consider it that long since this TV was bought, but a quick trawl of what’s now available revealed a hugely impressive array of widescreen, HD and web functionality, making our now deceased model something of an antique.
We are all at different stages with social media, which is itself constantly evolving. Nonetheless, it isn’t helpful to have polarised positions within the profession about its place or even legitimacy in our activities.
Social workers have been called many things over time (not all of them repeatable) but one descriptor used within the profession is that of ‘change agent’. When faced with the developments and challenges of social media we need to draw on this core aspect of our work so that, on the whole, it can be a positive experience for us both individually and collectively, enabling us to share our experiences with one another.
Join us and share your views and experiences regarding these and other relevant questions @SWSCmedia today 8:00 PM GMT / 3:00 PM EST / 12:00 Noon PST.
Nushra Mansuri is Professional Officer at the British Association of Social Workers (@BASW_UK).