Social Media and Social Work

By Richard Devine (02.10.20), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset

Preface: This is a review of ‘Social Media and Social Work: Implications and opportunities for practice’ edited by Claudia Megele and Peter Buzzi (2020). 

Introduction: 

‘The fast evolving social and technological landscapes have transformed society and the understanding of ‘social’ and are rapidly defining the ‘work’ in ‘social work’                       

(Megele and Buzzi, 2020: 15).

These ‘fast evolving’ technological developments are now being integrated into social work at an unprecedented pace as a result of COVID – we have, technologically speaking, been catapulted into a novel and relatively untrammeled sphere. These developments, facilitated by COVID, bring tremendous opportunity, but also numerous challenges that if un-considered could lead to clumsy, insensitive practices at best, and at worst, immoral, unethical, and dangerous practices. The rate of change is such that we could easily breach our professional code of practice, without awareness, until we are faced with the repercussions. If we are to avoid the pitfalls, and capitalize on the wealth of opportunities available, then an improved understanding of these limitations and benefits, is needed. As pointed out by famous astronomer and scientist, Carl Sagan (1994: 384):

‘Many of the dangers we face indeed arise from science and technology — but, more fundamentally, because we have become powerful without becoming commensurately wise. The world-altering powers that technology has delivered into our hands now require a degree of consideration and foresight that has never before been asked of us’

How do we ensure ‘a degree of consideration and foresight that has never before been asked of us’ to ensure we become ‘commensurately wise’? Fortunately, Megele and Buzzi have edited a timely book, titled ‘Social Media and Social Work: Implications and Opportunities for Practice’ (2020). 

Private versus Public and Personal versus Professional: 

The delineation between these different ways of operating is becoming increasingly blurred, and this is, in part a consequence of social media. For example, I have a twitter account, which is in essence an open forum, for which I can be in contact with parents, adoptees and foster carers, care experienced people, social work students, colleagues, academics, and a wide range of others. Never have I before had access to freely interact with such an array of individuals, nor has such an array of individuals had the opportunity to interact with me. I use my social media, within a professional capacity, but most of the time I spend on social media is outside of my contractual hours, so doesn’t constitute ‘work’. An advantage in managing this ambiguity and complexity is that I have spent several years as a qualified social worker before I began using social media. Therefore, I had a clear grasp of the real-world importance of boundaries, appropriate information sharing, and ethical practice, such that when I began to use social media I could transfer those pre-existing lessons and ethics. 

Megele and Buzzi (2020: 32) highlight the work of Prensky (2001), who distinguishes between ‘digital natives’, who are those born into social media technology, and ‘digital immigrants’ who are those born and raised before these technologies. However, they challenge this simplistic dichotomy, and instead suggest a more nuanced approach of thinking about our online interactions in terms of its purpose and whether it is personal or professional versus the extent to which our interactions are accessible and visible to others. In examining some of the opportunities and challenges of social media and digital technologies Megele and Buzzi (2020: 9) argue:

‘Being born digital, raised social and immersed in digital and social technologies may result in an uncritical acceptance of technology which takes for granted a status of ‘social by default’.  This can in turn lead to a ‘transparency problem’ which can make it difficult for young people to see and recognise the ways in which technology and media influence and shape the world and their perceptions of the world.’

This is illustrated beautifully in a parable by author, David Wallace (in one of the most captivating speeches I have heard): 

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

There are several other challenges faced when using social media, that are worth being aware of. To name just a few detailed by Megele and Buzzi (2020): 

  • Online disinhibition: In general, you feel less inhibited online than offline and this might lead to situations where we might say or do things online that you wouldn’t say or do face-to-face and in real life. I can’t tell you how many times I have inhibited a desire to posit a disagreement about an issue I am woefully ill-equipped to address but feel an overwhelming emotional urge to comment upon. I have not found a correlation between the emotional intensity of that urge and my level of knowledge on the subject.  
  • Anonymity: This amplifies the disinhibition effect and can lead to ‘deindividuation’ where you divorce the behaviour via the anonymous account from your personal and professional values. It also creates a challenge for the receiver of interactions from anonymous accounts, especially if the message is negative or critical because you can’t contextualize their behaviour in the same way as if they weren’t anonymous. 
  • Cocoon effect: Digital technologies, especially social media can be highly addictive, and provide an ‘immersive experience’ (2020: 45) that can become an echo chamber and divorce a person from their social context and relationships. Furthermore, because ‘social media technologies used machine learning to personalise the content we are exposed to based on previous choices’ we can end up with highly skewed, biased, and distorted information that reinforces our pre-existing views. This creates a context that is antithetical to being a critically minded social worker, in which we are expected to critically analyse the source, validity, and fairness of any argument. As pointed out by Megele and Buzzi (2020: 45) it results in ‘diminishing one’s openness and acceptance of difference and diversity and appreciation or respect for others views’ (2020: 45). 

With that said, there are some benefits. For example, the ‘disinhibition’ effect can lead to the self being more relaxed, open about difficulties, and able to access support in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. Interestingly, Allen and Buzzi (2020) in their chapter on ‘social media and mental health social work’ highlight evidence that suggests that individuals with serious mental ill health, compared to individuals without mental ill health, are more likely to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences online and establish peer and social support.  Furthermore, social media and digital technologies can have a ‘levelling effect’ (2020: 44), which can lead to greater dialogue between groups that may otherwise be divided by geography, social status, hierarchy, and socio-economic status.

To grapple with the complexity of using social media as well as taking advantage of the benefits, Megele and Buzzi recommend drawing upon pre-existing values and ethics and applying them ‘in a meaningful and contextually relevant manner in digital contexts’ (2020: 23). They provide a helpful framework for developing e-professionalism, that includes taking into consideration ‘compatibility’, ‘content’, ‘conduct’ ‘confidentiality and disclosure’, ‘context’, ‘connection and social capital’, ‘contact’, ‘consumption’, and ‘commercial exploitation’ (Megele and Buzzi, 2020: 54). The 10 C’s is a highly useful framework, both for the self, but also in work with children and young people. 

Children, Young People, and Social Media:

The proliferation of social media and digital technology has significant implications for children and young people, not least because some have not experienced childhood and/or adolescence without it. Undoubtedly, there are benefits. However, the risks, which Megele and Malik (2020: 77) suggest are overlooked by social workers, are numerous, ‘ranging from sexting and sexual solicitation to cyberbullying and online aggression, violence and abuse’. Some of these risks are beyond the comprehension of social workers (myself included) because social media and the implications weren’t a feature of our developmental experiences. Take one example, bullying, which is often devastating for young people given the importance of peer validation during adolescence, has an additional element now because‘it not only represents a rejection and othering of the individual, it is also – given the ubiquity of social media – all invasive and is often experienced as incessant, omnipresent and influencing the young person’s experiences continuously and at all times’ (Megele and Malik, 2020: 77). In a separate chapter, on social media and youth justice, Thompson and Joseph (2020: 142) describe how young people develop a ‘virtual community’, which is distinctly separate, and perhaps invisible, to their real-world relationships, yet can profoundly influence them. 

A compelling argument is made for social workers to improve their understanding of the role of social media, and for consideration of the young person’s digital world to feature within assessments. To this effect, Megele and Buzzi (2017; 2020) propose a fourth dimension to the assessment triangle, adding ‘digital citizenship and digital risks’ to child’s developmental needs, parenting capacity, and family and environmental factors. Failure to consider the young person’s digital world, Megele and Malik (2020: 190-191) argue ‘is tantamount to ignoring a significant amount of young people’s everyday experiences and the activities, behaviours and relationships that are of primary importance and that have a significant impact on their identity, self-esteem and wellbeing as well as personal and social development’

Should we be more concerned? 

After I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I think a more alarming and concerning picture could be made about the role of social media in the lives of children and young people. Many social media platforms have become monetized, and in order to extract capital they utilize advertisements, and thus are financially incentivized to maximize the time and attention users spend on their sites. They have become extremely skilled, highly manipulative, and intelligent, in the methods employed to grab your attention and keep you hooked. Harnessing powerful techniques that exploit our vulnerabilities is having devastating consequences. For example, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have found an exponential rise in rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, which is especially effecting girls. In my opinion, we should implement policies, such as increasing the minimum age that young people are able to use these sites. In the meantime, educating ourselves about the role of technology in integral, as well as utilizing tools that aid our thinking and ability to help children, young people and adults, such as those developed and proposed by Megele and Buzzi i.e. The 10 C’s (2020).  

Conclusion: 

We have entered a technological era, in which our social landscape and way of relating to one another is dramatically and rapidly changing. Megele and Buzzi (2020) provide information, evidence, and importantly, tools to resolve the issues of concern and support social workers and related professionals to effectively adapt to this technological revolution and equip us to be effective practitioners moving forward. 

The book can be found here and here.

‘Social Media and Social Work Implications and Opportunities for Practice’ (2020) offers a comprehensive overview of how digital technologies can support multiple areas of practice, with different chapters being devoted to different areas, such as children and families social work, adult mental health, youth justice, and working online with communities. There are many aspects of the book that have not been included in this blog, such as the role of digital technology in providing mental health treatments, or how technologies aid older people, and how the absence of these technological resources can lead to digital discrimination and exclusion. To that effect, this blog does not do the book justice, as there are many areas that have not been covered, not least, a full description of the tools developed (and in my opinion, much needed) to aid our ability to address the issues raised in the book.  

*Forthcoming work from Megele and Buzzi in 2021 includes a book on Social Media and Adult Social Work and one on Social Media and Mental Health.

By Richard Devine (02.07.20)

If you have found this interesting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join 160+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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