It seems timely to examine the Social Workers Registration Board Code of Conduct for social workers in Aotearoa New Zealand. This Code also applies to social workers who are not registered, as Section 105(1)(b) of the Act states that it not only applies to Registered Social Workers but also ‘should apply generally in the social work profession.’ Some individual employers require employees to comply with relevant professional codes of ethics or practice and if so, this Code applies.
There’s not one definitive edict that says social workers must not search for service users on social media, rather there are several related principles that seem to have relevance. The US guidance discussed further on in this post offers greater clarity.
Friend requests : “Never make a ‘friend request’ to a client to become friends on a personal, non-work- related social-media site. It is strongly advised that you politely decline any requests from clients and former clients if they wish to be ‘friends’ on a personal, non-work- related site. Consider changing privacy settings so as it is not possible for clients to request this.” (p.29).
Positive exceptions: “where social workers who have set up a work-related site to enable, for example, younger clients to connect and communicate with each other and/or their social worker and have a professional profile, the considerations may be very different. Guidance from a supervisor may be required”. (p.29)
Privacy Act 1993: The Privacy Act applies to all of us and should be considered paramount in making decisions about using social media to find out information about clients
“Remember that you are bound by the principles in the Privacy Act 1993. These include that information collected should be connected to a function or activity of the agency and it is necessary to collect that information for that purpose.”
Online searches: “information must not be collected by means that are unfair or intrude unreasonably (Privacy Act principle 18.) “If you’re doing an online search of a client without their consent, you may be breaching the Privacy Act and perhaps other ethical responsibilities. It could undermine the professional relationship, which is based on trust and confidence, as you hold the burden of the ‘secret’.
“If you find yourself interested in investigating the online activities of your clients, question your reasons for this and if necessary, discuss the issue in professional supervision. (p. 29)
Emergencies:“Sometimes searching for information about clients online is professionally justifiable, such as in emergency or crisis situations. The actions taken and the reasons for it should be fully recorded” .(p.30).
The British Association of Social Workers offers this cautious statement: “Social workers have a responsibility to consider the use of social media as part of safeguarding investigations but need to be mindful of the ethical implications. It is important to work with those professionals who are best placed to undertake the task of scrutinising social media and to ensure it is in the service user’s best interest”.
This caution is probably because of the uncertain legality in the UK context which is discussed in our article.
USA social media policy
By way of contrast the professional bodies in the United States offer this guidance in the very comprehensive National Association of Social Workers Association of Social Work Boards, Council On Social Work Education, Clinical Social Work Association Standards for Technology (2017) which is very clear . Standard 3.09: Using Search Engines to Locate Information about Clients (p.38) states:
“Except for compelling professional reasons, social workers shall not gather information about clients from online sources without the client’s consent; if they do so, they shall take reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of the found information”.
In the interpretation of this section (pp.39-40) the key points are worth adding here as these recommendations seem useful for social workers everywhere to consider, regardless of their own local codes, as they are grounded in professional ethics.
- Consent: Before social workers gather information from the Internet, they should obtain the client’s informed consent. Intentionally gathering information about a client through electronic means without consent should only be done if there is an emergency situation or specific reason that the information cannot or should not be obtained from the client directly or from third parties designated by the client.
- Privacy: Social workers should respect the privacy of client information posted on online social networks or other electronic media and not communicate with clients through these formats or gather information about clients through consent.
- Unintended viewing: If a social worker unintentionally comes across information about a client through electronic forms of communication, the social worker should avoid reading or gathering further information from this source once the identity of the client becomes evident. If information about a client is unintentionally accessed through electronic means (for instance on a social networking site belonging to another person), the social worker should make this known to the client and discuss the implications of the social worker having this knowledge.
- Exceptions to seeking client consent to gather information online may arise in emergency situations, for instance, when the client poses a serious, imminent risk to self or others, and the only way to identify where the client is would be to search for information online. Even in such cases, social workers should consider whether it is appropriate for them to search for client information online, or whether it would be more appropriate for police, emergency response teams, or other protective services professionals to do so.
- Documentation: Social workers who search online for information about clients for compelling professional reasons should include proper documentation in the client’s record.
- Verification: It is important to verify online information gathered about a client. This may be done by contacting the original source of the information, checking the accuracy of the information with the client, or checking the accuracy of the information with other appropriate sources
There’s plenty of information here for social workers to think about. But from an Aotearoa New Zealand perspective, it seems like more coherent and comprehensive guidance is needed. We would be pleased to see comments from social workers in Aotearoa and other countries about using Facebook for assessment and checking.
BASW Social media policy. Accessed at: https://www.basw.co.uk/system/files/resources/Social%20Media%20Policy.pdf
Cooner, T. S., & Beddoe, L. (2018). Facebook: An unethical practice or effective tool in child protection? Retrieved from https://youtu.be/gfNPJawHZK4
Cooner, T. S., Beddoe, L., Ferguson, H., & Joy, E. (2019). The use of Facebook in social work practice with children and families: exploring complexity in an emerging practice. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 1-22. doi:10.1080/15228835.2019.1680335 read here
National Association of Social Workers Association of Social Work Boards, Council On Social Work Education, Clinical Social Work Association (2017). Standards for Technology. Washington DC: Authors. Accessed https://www.socialworkers.org/includes/newIncludes/homepage/PRA-BRO-33617.TechStandards_FINAL_POSTING.pdf
Social Workers Registration Board ( 2016). Code of Conduct. Wellington, NZ : Author. Accessed at https://swrb.govt.nz/for-the-public/code-of-conduct/