In my first year of my doctoral program I was fortunate to meet a colleague who had as much online/social media experience as me – few of my fellow social work colleagues and faculty in our school used (even now) online social media much beyond LinkedIn for professional contacts and maybe Facebook for personal connections –  forget about blogging, Tumblr, Twitter or the like.

When I began graduate school my department did not use social media sites to promote and market their activities and programs. I asked if I could create and maintain a Twitter site for the Center and now I share Twitter duties with other graduate students. I enjoy working with others in the Center to think about how to effectively use social media to promote the Center’s activities.

One of the things I make sure to emphasize when I talk about using Twitter or other social media (our Center also has a Facebook page and a blog) is the reciprocal nature of social media. A lot of professionals use Twitter and Facebook in a one-way direction to share their organization’s (or professional) activities/news/etc. But I often remind others who are starting to use Twitter professionally that it’s not just about a mass news blast to the “Twitterverse” but that social media done best is done relationally. That means paying attention to who else is out there that is similar to you or your organization and “following” or “liking” their social media page. It means thanking new followers on Twitter for following you. It means when someone you follow or like posts, a news story link or message that you “re-tweet” or “share” rather than posting it as your own. It means commenting on other blogs and linking other blogs on your blog as well.  It means making connections between fellow online relationships that you think would benefit from knowing each other.To me this is what social work is all about!

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my mantras in almost all social work (and beyond) situations is parallel processing. So in the same ways that we social workers tend to think about social media as a client (practice) issue, I want to encourage our profession to see it as a professional and organizational issue as well, beyond the issue of just client concerns (i.e. clients engaging in problematic behaviors on social media sites) which is where most of the emphasis on social media is currently situated.

As Ericka and I discussed at our presentation for NASW-MN last week, this (focusing on clients) is the easy part of the social media discussion to come together on. It’s also the location where our professional ethics give us the most guidance. The NASW and ASWB came together in 2005 to create a guide about technology, Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. However, what Ericka and I were concerned with is the lack of guidance on the professional-to-professional ethical concerns that we have been hearing about or seeing within our own experiences (both at an agency or organizational level and at a larger macro professional level). Unfortunately this means that often in discussions I’m having with other social workers about social technology, the “blame” almost always centers on how social media affects clients. Rarely – almost never – do social workers talk about their own usage on social media sites (except with those who are pretty adamantly against social media) or the professional responsibilities and ethical issues that are present in this digital age.

In addition, supervisors often have less personal usage experience in social media and social networking than practitioners and at the agency level there are very few policies in place to address problematic issues regarding social media and social networking use other than what I call “abstinence-only” policies. That is, no access to social media or social networking sites in the work place. This becomes a problem when the agency decides to jump on the social networking bandwagon and create their own Twitter/Facebook page/Blog and suddenly they need access so that employees can tweet/post/etc.

Just as a certain politician recently found himself in trouble over twitter messages he thought were private that instead had been published publicly, there are social work professionals and social work students who behave “badly” on social media sites and our profession hasn’t figured out how to address these problems. For example (true story), what about two social workers making fun of a colleague on Facebook, regardless of whether the colleague in question is a “friend,” when all the other colleagues see the exchange happening? How would we address this situation professionally if the one being made fun of was a client of ours? What about if one of the bullies was our client? My question is, as a professional, am I holding my fellow colleagues to the same ethical standards when online as I would in real life? If I overheard two of my colleagues making fun of a third colleague in the break room, would I say something to them? Would you? Is there a difference between how professionals behave online vs. in real life?

When Ericka and I talk about “virtual boundaries” we are not only referring to boundaries in the client sense – with social media, there is now a greater chance that professional and personal relationships will find themselves crossing the “line” – or, as Ericka talks about it, the overlap in the Venn diagram in which we have personal relationships and professional relationships in separate spheres. Many of us have had that overlap even before social media and social networking sites were accessible. Are these questions about the overlap new, or is it the technology that has made this overlap more visible? How do agencies address IRL problems amongst its workers? Are agencies and organizations – including NASW and ASWB – reacting or proactively working on some guidelines for the profession?

At our presentation last week, we had six “case studies” that all had to do with professional ethical dilemmas regarding social networking and social media use. We had hoped to engage other social work professionals in a discussion about the workplace and professional issues that come up regarding social networking and social media. Unfortunately, the audience once again kept bringing it back to “client” issues. Ericka and I left the presentation scratching our heads over why it is so difficult to engage social workers in discussing our own behaviors – and all I could come back to is that it is an issue of parallel processing. Even though we talk about reflective practice, I think our profession is still struggling to address professional ethics when it comes to how we treat each other. Yes, our code of ethics has standards for professional responsibilities to colleagues, but when it comes to how we treat each other – I think we are still struggling. Most of the continuing education classes on Ethics that I have taken for my licensure focus on professional/client ethical situations. My take on this: I think as a profession we are sometimes afraid to look in the mirror. As I mentioned in our presentation, “abstinence-only policies” regarding social media and social networking usage by social workers (not clients) in agencies doesn’t promote safe social networking, and agencies and organizations – and the profession as well – must have these discussions.

I credit my ability to even entertain the possibility of a doctoral program in large part because of my blogging, which began as a personal outlet and led to formal writing and scholarly projects and helped me discover there was a niche for me in the social work academic world. Clearly, I am a big fan of the potential that an active and carefully honed online presence can contribute to if done thoughtfully and proactively. So while I understand the fear and mistrust about online social media that seems to permeate the social work world, I believe that it is not the technology itself that is problematic and that the ethics and values that guide behavior in the online world is actually no different than IRL (in real life).

Social media and social network technologies are not the problem. The problem is that human relationships are complex. The world of social networking and social media only means that our social worlds have expanded in ways that are new. However, the problem of bullying, gossiping, sexual harassment, etc. are not new issues, the internet only gave us one more place where we must apply our relationship skills. Who better than social workers to be a leader in this issue? And we need to start with ourselves. We can’t be role modeling online relationships to our clients if we can’t even have discussions about it amongst ourselves.


3 thoughts on “Looking in the mirror: professional virtual boundaries & social media

  1. I think the points that you raise and consider are vitally important. I agree that placing a differentiation between ‘clients’ and ‘professionals’ is unhelpful in the extreme – in fact, it is possibly a reflection of ‘modernist’ thinking and trying to place ourselves (as professionals) on a different ‘wavelength’ when in fact, the world is moving into a much more postmodern debate and engagement process.
    I have long been an advocate for a professional ‘code’ relating to social media because quite frankly, I worry about where I might be placing myself – I am a state employee but I also have to remain anonymous because I have no idea what I am ‘allowed’ to do and I can’t risk my job. I am torn though because I have and felt the positives that can be gained through thoughtful (I hope!) use of social media.
    The profession risks being left behind so long as people who don’t, won’t and can’t understand are ‘leading’ the debates. I also feel that the debate has, in some ways, moved beyond national borders so in a sense, so many more opportunities are opening up.
    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Thanks for this post. I’m in Liz LIghtfoot’s class on social work and social media and this piece helps me understand social media much better. ‘See’ you in class this Tuesday!

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