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The Savvy Social Worker’s Guide to Social Media and the Internet

Social media is ever-present and will only continue to grow. As such, social workers need to know how to ethically and successfully navigate the many paths of the online world to protect themselves and more importantly, their clients. Social media in particular can be used in a myriad of ways from networking with other professionals to marketing your practice.

How Social Media Can Be Useful for Social Workers

  • Network with other providers. In addition to networking in person with local social workers, social media platforms give you connections ranging from your own neighborhood to all over the world. While there’s no shortage of social media platforms to choose from, Facebook is clearly the front-runner based on audience engagement according to Tech Times’ analysis of comScore’s data. Below is a chart comparing audience engagement across the top social media platforms.

Due to Facebook’s popularity, there’s a good chance you’ll find a group pertaining to an area of social work that interests you.

Do you want to connect with private practice therapists? There are groups for that.

Are you interested in networking with child welfare or geriatric workers? There are groups for that.

Are you interested social work pertaining to social justice or advocacy? You guessed it – there are groups for that, too!

Your best bet is to get into a secret or closed group. A closed group can be searched for and anyone can find it, but you have to be approved to join and your posts are only seen by members. A secret group is a group you are invited to join so it’s not searchable.

  • Build reputation and showcase expertise. People look up their providers on the web all the time and clients will search for you. If you have professional blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, or Pinterest accounts that are public – you control the story you let others see. You choose content that allows clients to get to know you, the practitioner.
  • Use social media to enhance your motivation for your career. Create and develop Pinterest boards with your social work interests. And while you’re at it, blog about social justice issues that are important to you. Exploring your area of interests can remind you why you love what you do!
  • Use discussion boards to connect with other social workers. Engage in conversations about policy and procedures, or concerns with other professionals. You might join a listserv, a therapy site, or even LinkedIn – interact with other professionals, gain knowledge, and share your own thoughts.

How the Internet Can Be Useful for Social Workers

  • Take advantage of online educational opportunities. There are plenty of options online for Bachelors, Masters, and PhDs in social work and related fields. There are also certificates you can earn online to hone your skills and increase credibility. You are no longer confined to your community to find preferred training classes. Online courses are offered for virtually any aspect or specialty of social work.
  • Tele-social work is an option. Online platforms allow social workers to see and talk to their clients, and provide services like therapy, without ever having to step into an office! This can be ideal for clients who live in rural areas, lack the means for proper transportation, or are just having difficulty getting to a traditional office. Using telehealth to reach clients is becoming steadily more popular among doctors and other health providers.

Ethical Considerations

  • Get educated about on-line rules and regulations. Look into classes and certification courses you can take regarding online etiquette. Know that most email is not confidential, and that a telehealth platform has to be HIPAA compliant. With all of the rules governing social work and social media, it’s essential for you to be informed so you don’t make an inadvertent mistake. You can use the following infographic by Scrypt as a quick reference for using social media without violating any HIPAA regulations.
  • Don’t talk about clients online. If you must – keep it in the broadest sense possible. Don’t include any identifying information about your client, not even gender. Social workers often want to share cases and funny stories with their colleagues, or ask for advice from others in the field. Be aware that what you write could get out for anyone to see. Even in a private Facebook group, you’re not going to know all the people who can see the posts.

Before writing anything about a client, consider how they would feel if they knew what you were writing about them. If you are looking for feedback, ask broader questions instead of focusing on a specific client. Instead of saying “I have a client with PTSD and am wondering…?” Try asking “What interventions can people use to help alleviate someone’s symptoms of PTSD?”

  • Avoid looking up your clients online. It is human nature to want to find out more, but doing so can harm the therapeutic relationship. A client will tell you only what they are comfortable sharing. If they ask you to read a blog post they wrote or look up something they were featured in, then by all means do so. When tempted to look, ask yourself what you’ll do with the information you find, and what’s your purpose for searching it out? If it’s simply for the sake of curiosity – stop.
  • Whether you work for a private practice or in an agency, it is vital to have a social media policy in place. Let your clients know you won’t friend them on Facebook or LinkedIn. Set that boundary. You can like, respect, and have an excellent therapeutic relationship with a client, but you are NOT their friend.
  • Nothing truly disappears on the Internet. Even if you delete a tweet or blog post – it’s still findable. It is a good rule to not put anything on the Internet you wouldn’t be comfortable with anyone you know – including grandma and your boss – seeing. If you have a personal Facebook page, blog, or other social media account – keep the privacy settings high. Realize even when you post privately, your post isn’t always private. It comes down to not writing or posting anything that you are not willing to be a representation of you to the world.

Like many professions in the 21st century, the Internet has been an amazing asset to social workers. This technology allows us to connect with peers, colleagues, and clients from all over the world, but it can also land you in hot water if you’re not careful. Luckily there’s a vast supply of online resources and courses you can take to help you have a successful and secure virtual presence.

Written by Julie Fanning

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Julie Fanning MSW, LCSW, runs a successful private practice, Holding Hope Services, and she has worked with individuals and families of all ages in child welfare, therapy, and medical social work settings. The MSW Online Programs blog is where Julie shares her tips and resources on how to succeed in the field of social work.

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