Reflections on social workers & social media in Aotearoa: Part 1.

Social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand should make greater use of social media for professional purposes.  By doing so they will contribute to a growing international community of practice, and realise benefits for social work in New Zealand.  That is the argument of this guest blog post (thanks for the invitation Liz) , and two other posts to follow. I will explore the arguments and issues for practitioners and managers (part 1: this post), for academics and researchers (part 2: the next post), and for social work organisations (part 3: the final post).

At a recent conference of the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) Liz Beddoe and I indulged in one of our favourite distractions by setting up a conference backchannel (a social media practice where participants use Twitter, and other social media, to comment on an event or conference before, during and after it occurs).  We negotiated with the SWRB an official conference hashtag (#swrb13) and invited other conference participants to join us.  Although few in number we managed to create an online awareness of the conference and had our tweets retweeted by other social work tweeps across the globe.  All conference activity was archived using Storify (a social media tool for collating content related to an event or theme).

Afterwards, we wondered why social workers and social work academics in New Zealand don’t make greater use of social media.  In part we were reflecting on the significant presence of UK social workers and social work academics on Twitter, and the very active community of practice they have created there: including a Twitter journal club @swjcchat; a book club @SWBookClub; and many special interest groups: e.g. #madstudies, #disabilitystudies, #mhchat.

Social media in Aotearoa New Zealand

So why don’t social workers in New Zealand make greater us of social media for professional purposes?  Well, it’s probably not because they are less enthusiastic about social media.  New Zealanders are avid users of the internet and social media.  The top ten sites accessed during October 2013, with the proportion of New Zealanders accessing each, is shown in the list below (Adcorp, 2013):

  1. YouTube (55%)
  2. Facebook (53%)
  3. WordPress (19%)
  4. Tumblr (16%)
  5. LinkedIn (15%)
  6. MySpace (9%)
  7. Twitter (8%)
  8. Instagram (6%)
  9. Pinterest (6%)
  10. Flickr (3%)

Many, if not most, social workers are likely to use social media for personal purposes and for networking with whānau, family and friends.  If in the course of this social networking activity they bump up against a site that is professionally relevant, it seems likely that they might ‘like’ it. The fact that over 300 people (at the time of writing) have ‘liked’ the Facebook page of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) supports this view.  However, simply ‘liking’ a Facebook page falls short of the kind of active engagement and interaction that the use of social media for professional purposes can offer.

Why don’t social work practitioners and managers use social media for professional purposes?

Before addressing why social workers and social work mangers should use social media for professional purposes let’s consider why they don’t.  I can only speculate here but (leaving aside lack of time or interest) it’s possible they are concerned about the boundaries between their personal and professional lives.  Social media do have the unfortunate effect of blurring the distinction, and this can lead to some undesirable outcomes: such as breaching client confidentiality on Facebook (Robb, 2011).  Are there not then more reputational risks than benefits from social media for social workers?  Well, it’s true that the inappropriate use of social media has become a significant disciplinary issue for many industries.

In spite of the potential benefits, many social work employers prohibit access to social media sites during working hours, for fear that staff will waste time posting to personal sites, and perhaps because of worries that they might share work-related information inappropriately.  However, simply locking down access doesn’t really address the issue, and the exponential rise in smartphone access to social networks makes a controlling approach futile.  Social workers need professional advice and guidance on the use of social media (Reamer, 2011), and managers need to recognise the positive benefits that can flow from their effective use.  These issues are made more pressing when we recognise that not only do social workers need to manage their personal use of social media responsibly, they also need to consider how to manage relationships with clients online (a topic to which I will return to in part 3).

At the time of writing neither the SWRB or the ANZASW have specific social media policies. However, by way of an example, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) policy on social media includes the statement that:

‘BASW encourages the positive uses of social media, to which social workers should apply the values and principles of the Code of Ethics particularly developing professional relationships…upholding the values and reputation of the profession…maintaining professional boundaries…sharing information appropriately…maintaining confidentiality…managing and assessing risk…and challenging discrimination’  (BASW, 2012, p. 10)

In other words, although social media make our communications more visible to a wider public, the point for social workers to note is that they need to apply ‘the same principles, expectations and standards for interacting and communicating with people online as in other areas of practice’ (BASW, 2012, p. 10).  Breaches of professional codes with social media often involve sharing inappropriate material on personal sites, gross breaches of confidentiality, or practices that call into question the character of the social worker.  However, as Ermy (2012) puts it, ‘If someone doesn’t realise that disclosing details of a visit on their own blog is counter to professional codes of ethics, it isn’t because they don’t ‘get’ social media, it’s because they don’t ‘get’ professional codes of confidentiality’  (Ermy, 2012).

Why should social worker practitioners and managers use social media for professional purposes?

What then are the ‘positive uses of social media’ to which the BASW policy refers? I would include the following:

  • participation in a global community of practice;
  • access to informal learning opportunities;
  • awareness of breaking news affecting the social work profession at home and abroad;
  • access to new research findings, learning resources, and events;
  • a forum for exchanging ideas about innovative practice developments and initiatives.

Since this blog is an example of a social media tool, why not include your own thoughts on the benefits (or pitfalls) by commenting below? Here are the thoughts of a social work tweep called @ermintrude2.

Social work practitioners and managers aren’t just consumers of social media content. Many are creating their own content, and building their own professional communities of practice. The author of Fighting Monsters (an anonymous British social worker) argues that blogging allows social workers to represent their profession, challenge misconceptions, and engage in dialogue with service users (The Social Worker, 2011). More recently, Novell (2013) argued that sites like Twitter offer a distributed form of support for social workers and cites Clay Shirky’s claim that ‘…by turning us from passive consumers into active producers and sharers of content, the internet is creating a better, more democratic world’.  This sentiment may seem a little too utopian for some, and there is a negative side to the internet and to social media known only too well to social workers. However I believe the potential benefits of responsible professional networking with social media far outweigh the risks.

Nonetheless, for the benefits to be realised a critical mass of the social work community need to be able and willing to engage.  It needn’t be everyone, but more than the few.  Perhaps one way forward would be to learn from another of the initiatives arising spontaneously within the UK social work community?  @SocialCareCurry is an informal network of social work practitioners who use social media to coordinate meetings at different sites in the UK in order to eat curry and tweet. Yes, I know it sounds strange but the solidarity of strangers and friends united in a shared affection for social wok and kai just might be a practice that transcends national boundaries.  Interested in finding out?  Follow @NeilBallantyne & @BeddoeE

For a social work oriented introduction to twitter see JSWEC’s guide to using twitter

This piece is cross-posted on the Learning Designs website, and is released under a Creative Commons attribution 3.0 license.

References

Adcorp. (2013). Social media statistics October 2013: Australia and New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.adcorp.co.nz/news-blog/Social-Media-Statistics-October-2013,-Australia-an

BASW. (2012). BASW social media policy. Birmingham, England. Retrieved from http://cdn.basw.co.uk/upload/basw_34634-1.pdf

Ermy, S. (2012, July 23). Can social media be taught? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://shirleyayres.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/can-social-media-be-taught/

Nielsen (2010). Nielsen social media report: New Zealand wave 2: 2010 – Separating hype form reality. Auckland, New Zealand: Nielsen.

Novell, R. J. (2013, July 23). Social workers should use social media to challenge public perceptions. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2013/jul/23/social-workers-social-media-challenge-perception

Reamer, F.G. (2011, July 1). Eye on ethics: Developing a social media ethics policy. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_070111.shtml

Robb, M. (2011). Pause before posting: Using social media responsibly. Social Work Today11 (1), 8. Retrieved from http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/020911p8.shtml

The Social Worker. (2011, April 7). Connected social workers: Technology brings professionals and users together. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/local-government-network/2011/apr/07/connected-social-workers-technology-lets-sector-speak

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About Neil Ballantyne

I'm a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the the School of Social Sciences, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Preoccupied with social theory, social change and technology.
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9 Responses to Reflections on social workers & social media in Aotearoa: Part 1.

  1. Jane Maidment says:

    Neil I absolutely agree with all of the points you have made about social media, and would like to add that social media is a way for clients to also access information and support too, and as such is invaluable to the profession as a whole, but I myself do not use social media much at all. Why? Simply time. I work most days for 10 hours, sometimes more doing what I need to do to meet the basic requirements of my job. Some of this work includes using aspects of social media such as youtube for educational purposes. I also work pretty much every weekend. At this point the demand from email use is all I can keep up with. I do not want to invite any more instantaneous communication into my life. I know it is the way of the future, and I certainly agree that in terms of usefulness for sw there are many good ways social media can be harnessed to promote sw objectives, but having to squeeze more and more communication demands into the space of a day is unrealistic at this stage for me. Jane M

  2. Hi Jane,
    Many thanks for taking the time to comment. I hear what you are saying with regard to time…we all only have so much of it. And social media can be a huge waster of time. I suppose I try to ration my time online and to spend it wisely. But that’s easier said than done.

    For me I think that professional use of social media has matured to a point where the benefits (in terns of networking, knowledge sharing, and current awareness) outweigh the costs. But we each have to do our own reckoning on that score. I’ll be interested in your reaction to the second post where I tackle the benefits for academics and researchers directly. I really do think we’re reaching a tipping point in that domain, and there’s a social justice rationale for engagement.

    Thanks again for commenting.

    Neil

    PS Fancy a @socialcarecurry night in ChCh in March?

  3. Jane Maidment says:

    Yes that sounds great! The tweeting bit could be an issue. I do not have a smart phone. Do you need a smart phone to tweet? Just the old Nokia here.( now I am really exposing my social media ignorance!)

  4. Neil Ballantyne says:

    Ummm….well it is possible to post to twitter using text messaging.
    http://bit.ly/1kc94sV
    Although you will need to set up an account on twitter first by visiting:
    twitter.org
    Why not try it and see how it goes?

  5. Deb Stanfield says:

    Great comments thanks Neil and thanks to Liz for creating an extra space for them to be made. My sense is that most NZ social workers genuinely want to be doing everything they can to highlight social issues, promote social change and progress their profession. Many of us however are employed in large busy risk averse organizations which as you say do not provide guidance or certainty around the use of social media. Those cultures can be very overwhelming and leadership re our professional use of social media is definitely needed, so thanks for the initiative!
    My experience as someone who travels frequently to Canada is that the push to use social media, (at a N. American conference for example), is hugely peer driven. It has become a professional imperative there, much like having a mobile phone or an email account. You simply cannot establish professional relationships or stay in touch with trends without this facility – it seems to me that the use of social media is no longer a novelty or a hobby.
    I have a particular interest in the relationship between journalism and social work, and I believe there are true parallels between the two professions. New media has posed interesting challenges for traditional journalism however the social work profession also needs to organize a response to it. We need to sit in this ever-changing media space and decide how we would like to use it as citizens. I have made this my challenge but it is a very complex one that is taking me longer than I expected to meet. I love diving into depths of Twitter on the weekend and it resources me hugely as a social work educator and as a student; my challenge now is to look at how I can contribute to this world. Presently, like a child having just moved to a new neighbourhood, I’m just peaking out the window waiting for the right time to “come out and play.” My bet is that there are quite a few others behind their windows doing the same thing. It will happen! New Zealand social work is unique and I think we want to do it in a way that reflects this uniqueness. You are absolutely right though – we shouldn’t wait too long!

  6. Neil Ballantyne says:

    I agree Deb…it will happen and I hope that the gentle provocation provided by the post above, and others to come, might encourage people to put their toes in the water.

    Twitter is a great way place to start and isn’t too demanding. I think of social media as consisting of a series of networked public spaces, virtual agoras, places where people can gather and kōrero in between our face to face encounters.

    And it can be a tremendously supportive place too. People are only too happy to help the newbies. So yes, Aotearoa social workers, please do “come out and play” 😉

  7. Pingback: Reflections on social workers and social media in Aotearoa: Part 3 | Social Work Research in New Zealand

  8. Pingback: To tweet or not to tweet? An RSW activist’s introduction to twitter | Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand

  9. Pingback: Thing 4: Explore blogs | 23 Things for Research

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