Abstract and Keywords
Social media are defined as applications and websites that allow users to share content, usually of their own making. Social media users include individuals and organizations across a broad range of social strata. Key social work organizations, such as the National Association of Social Workers and the Association of Social Work Boards, have begun noting the proliferation of social media usage in education and practice and have begun developing guidelines to govern their use. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, in their Grand Challenges of Social Work initiative, highlighted social media as an important area of growth for research and education. Despite the field’s nascent enthusiasm, practical and ethical concerns persist. This article defines social media; discusses its usage in social work practice, research, and education; and discusses the ethical and practical considerations in each domain.
Social Media Definition and Concepts
Social media have changed the way people live their lives: they have revolutionized how people keep in touch over time and space, learn about current events, and communicate with elected officials. The ubiquity of social media in everyday life has impacted how social media are defined and understood.
Social media are defined as applications and websites that allow users to create and share content (Carr & Hayes, 2015). An application (also known as an “app”) is defined as a software program that allows a user to generate or modify content. Websites ** are defined as one or more pages located on the World Wide Web (WWW) connected via hyperlink, generated and maintained by the same entity. Social media facilitate the creation and dissemination of content for a variety of purposes, such as entertainment and education. For instance, users can create and share written content (blogs) via Tumblr, WordPress, Medium, or Blogger. Short-form written information, also referred to as microblogging, can be shared via Twitter. Microblogs, as well as long-form content applications like Facebook, can also be used to generate and share images and video. Instagram, Vine, and YouTube are social media applications that primarily use image and video content (Robbins & Singer, 2014). These are just a few examples of current platforms social media users utilize to share content.
Social media may include social networking elements, as in the case of Facebook or Twitter, but they are first and foremost defined by the creation and dissemination of user-generated content (Carr & Hayes, 2015). Interactions on social media are mediated through user-generated content, requiring little to no user-to-user interaction. Said another way, social media users can choose whether to interact with a user, their content, both, or neither. Further, social media users can choose how they present themselves, or whether to present themselves at all, translating into an ability to control whether and how one networks with other users (Carr & Hayes, 2015).
There are two key distinctions to keep in mind when defining social media. The first concerns the difference between social media sites and social networking sites. As described above, social media enable users to generate and share content. Social media users may disseminate content with little to no interaction with other users. In contrast, social networking sites are defined as WWW-based services that allow users to create a profile, connect to other like-minded or familiar users specific to that site, then “view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Carr & Hayes, 2015, p. 49). The second distinction concerns the relationship between the Internet, the WWW, and social media. The Internet is defined as the infrastructure underlying the global network of computers, while the WWW is an application that facilitates communication between computers that are part of the Internet. Social media require the Internet, but not the WWW. The distinction allows for the inclusion of Internet-based apps, like Snapchat and Instagram, that operate within a closed computer system, as social media sites.
In addition to the centrality of the Internet and user-generated content, social media are also characterized by their directionality. Social media users can choose whether to interact with other users in a specific group, all of the users in their network, or all users of the site (Carr & Hayes, 2015). Further, social media users can chose the direction of their interactions: toward themselves or toward their network.
Social media are often described as a “millennial” pursuit, referring to persons born between 1981 and 2001, and as being most prevalent among mainstream populations. However, recent research indicates that social media usage is much more demographically distributed (Perrin, 2015). While 90% of persons aged 18 to 29 are on social media, 65% of adults aged 30 to 65 are also social media users. Across binary definitions of gender, social media usage is comparable, with 68% of women and 62% of men claiming to use social media (Perrin, 2015). Across mainstream ethnic and racial categories, social media usage appears comparable between groups: 65% of whites and 65% of Hispanics use social media. Disparities remain, however, when examining social media usage among already marginalized groups. For example, only 35% of those over the age of 65, 50% of low-income households, and 54% of black households are reported to use social media. These figures highlight some of the tensions social workers experience when incorporating social media into practice, teaching, research, and education.
Social Media and Macro Social Work Practice
The proliferation of the Internet and the advent of social media have revolutionized community organizing around the world. From Occupy Wall Street (Juris, 2012; Tufekci, Freelon, & Gleason, 2013) and the Arab Spring (Howard et al., 2011) to the Black Lives matter movement (DeFreece & Carney, 2016), social movements are using social media to engage citizens and organize actions. The general ease of access to social media through the proliferation of the smartphone allows for content to reach more people using fewer resources. Further, when social media sites have a social networking component, the ability of the message to spread to vastly different networks multiplies, as when things are said to go “viral.”
Social Media and Policy Advocacy
Social media have also impacted the ways in which individuals and groups engage in policy advocacy. For example, since the election of Donald Trump there have been several attempts by Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Policy advocacy organizations have leveraged social media to get millions of Americans to directly petition their elected officials with the hashtag #KilltheBill and offering real-time mapping of nearby protests (Indivisible, 2017). Spontaneous protests have erupted in congressional and senate offices, as well as during hearings (Gabbat, 2017). Social media, particularly as accessed through cell phones, has become the preferred coordination tool for social movements around the world (Shirky, 2011).
Social media have not only altered the manner with which social movement organize and advocate with elected officials and policymakers, they have also changed the way elected officials and other policymakers engage their constituents. For example, Facebook has an “election integrity” team which works with elections commissions around the world to ensure that election-related pages and accounts are accurate and transparent (Laposky, 2017). The 2008 and 2016 US presidential elections saw campaigns pouring millions of dollars into Facebook, Twitter, and Google Ads (Sanders, 2016). As a result, there were concerns during the 2016 US presidential election that Google searches could adversely impact the election results (Schultz, 2016). An ongoing government investigation is examining the way other countries may have used Facebook ads to influence the election (Entous, Timberg, & Dwoskin, 2017). As a result of this investigation, Facebook has dramatically changed the way application developers can access and use Facebook data (Kastrenakes, 2018).
Social Media and Issue Advocacy
Macro social workers have begun to employ social media in their own advocacy efforts. The Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social work, initiated by the Association of Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA), was launched to advocate for the importance of macro practice to the profession writ large (Reisch, 2017). As part of the advocacy effort, #MacroSW was developed to connect macro social work practitioners around the United States. The hashtag serves to disseminate macro social work teaching resources, employment opportunities, and related advocacy efforts. A weekly twitter chat is also held using the hashtag, enabling macro practitioners and social work scholars to discuss various topics of importance.
Recent scholarship has examined the effectiveness of social media use for advocacy. Sitter and Curnew (2016), examining the use of social media for community-based advocacy, identify three forms of social media engagement: call-to-action, blending offline and online efforts in real time, and platform integration. Saxton, Niyirora, Guo, and Waters (2015) examine the use of hashtags for policy advocacy on Twitter by organizational members of a national patient advocacy organization. The authors show that the use of hashtags increased the level of engagement by “followers” of the organizations—individuals who are part of the social network of the advocacy organizations online.
Challenges in Using Social Media in Macro Social Work Practice
Many possibilities exist for social media use in macro social work practice, but challenges remain. Chief among these challenges are the remaining demographic gaps in social media usage, of particular concern to social workers invested in working with marginalized populations. A universal concern among social work practitioners is the ability to maintain the confidentiality of groups and individuals. For example, the ubiquity of social media has resulted in a plethora of methods to anonymously access the content generated by individuals of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. One such mechanisms is an application protocol interface (API), which allows web-based applications to communicate with each other and exchange information: both Twitter and Facebook have streaming APIs which allow apps to download information about site users. It is important for social workers to become familiar with these technologies so they will be able to effectively guard against privacy breaches and the unintentional distribution of information.
While macro social work practitioners have begun employing social media for advocacy campaigns, much remains to be understood concerning best practices and effective strategies. Macro social worker practitioners must understand the culture of the various social media outlets, particularly if attempting to scale an advocacy campaign. Leveraging social media for advocacy campaigns also depends largely on the scope of the campaign: the tools employed for city- or state-wide campaigns will look different than ones in which a neighborhood is attempting to organize around a given issue. In both cases, dedicated practitioners who understand the culture and language of the social media platform in question will offer the campaign the best chances of success.
Social Media and Micro Social Work Practice
Given the proliferation of social media, it is likely that social media are widely used by both clients and social workers. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are three examples of social media platforms through which both personal and professional information may be publicly available. The widespread use of social media by social work practitioners and the individuals and families with whom they work has implications for clinical practice, particularly with regard to boundaries and dual relationships, client privacy, and confidentiality (Reamer, 2013). Social media have created new ways for social workers to interact with clients (Reamer, 2014) and new ways for clients to access support and resources outside of the social worker–client dyad. While these developments bring the potential for creative engagement and intervention, the proliferation of social media has also created ethical tensions for social work practitioners and challenges for social workers engaged in clinical practice (Reamer, 2013). The recently released National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), Council for Social Work Education (CSWE), and Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA) Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice outlines specific recommendations for social workers regarding their use of social media. The recommendations include developing a social media policy, maintaining clear professional boundaries with clients, and advocating for access to technological resources for clients who may otherwise have difficulty gaining access (NASW, 2017).
Developing a Social Media Policy
A clear social media policy that is in alignment with the ethics and values of the profession can mitigate confusion, safeguard against ethical misconduct, and assist in the maintenance of clear boundaries between the social worker and client. A social media policy typically includes information regarding the social worker’s use of electronic communication, including social networking sites, search engines, blogs, text, and instant messaging applications. Social work practitioners should review their social media policy with clients during the initial meeting and revisit the policy throughout the working relationship as questions arise (NASW, 2017; Reamer, 2013, 2014).
Maintaining Professional Boundaries
The distinction between the personal and the professional can become blurry if engagement in social media is not intentional. Traditional notions of professional boundaries can be inadvertently ignored, as personal information is made public via social media (Judd & Johnston, 2012; Westwood, 2016). As such, social workers must be knowledgeable about privacy settings and intentional about what types of information is available to the general public. Social workers and clients may share online connections or “friend” networks of which social workers may or may not be aware (NASW, 2017). Disclosure of personal information via social media will have a direct impact on the client–worker relationship. The NASW, ASWB, CSWE, and CSWA Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice state:
Social workers who use technology to provide services should take reasonable steps to prevent client access to social workers’ personal social networking sites and should not post personal information on professional Web sites, blogs, or other forms of social media, to avoid boundary confusion and inappropriate dual relationships. Although social workers have a right to freedom of speech, they should be aware of how their personal communications could affect their professional relationship. (2017, p. 8)
Advocating for Access
Social workers’ commitment to social justice includes advocating for access to technological resources, particularly for marginalized populations that may otherwise not have equitable access to the benefits and resources available via technology (NASW, 2017). Individuals and families can benefit from connecting with others through social media, as these connections may enable them to gain access to needed social work services, acquire helpful information regarding social and health-related needs and challenges, provide connection to others for support, and facilitate participation in democratic processes that may directly impact their well-being. It is in the interest of social work practitioners to assess the technological resources available to their clients and to support their clients in learning ways to engage with social media when such engagement may be beneficial to their well-being.
Examples of Social Media Use in Micro Practice
When social workers are able to utilize social media in a manner that is in alignment with the values and ethics of the profession, social media open pathways for innovative methods of client engagement and intervention. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) partnered with Facebook and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to create a service geared toward intervening with individuals experiencing suicidal ideation. The service enables individuals to report a suicidal comment they see on Facebook, which will trigger an email to the individual who posted the comment encouraging them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They also have the option to engage in a confidential chat session with a crisis worker by clicking on a link (Reamer, 2013; SAMHSA, 2011).
Recent research has described benefits of social media engagement among populations of marginalized youth, including sexual minority youth (Craig, McInroy, McCready, Di Cesare, & Pettaway, 2015), transgender youth of color (Singh, 2013), and youth experiencing homelessness (Rice & Barham-Adhikari, 2014). For sexual minority youth, social media use can facilitate the creation of community, knowledge transmission, and self-expression. Sexual minority youth have also reported benefits to expressing their identities online prior to being open about their identities in their offline lives (Craig et al., 2015). Social media use can promote resilience among transgender youth of color, who experience widespread transprejudice and racism. In addition to connecting to other transgender people of color, youth in Singh’s (2013) study described receiving support via Twitter from “models of inspiration,” such as mentors or celebrities, and using social media to access support resources outside of their geographic region. Youth experiencing homelessness are often lacking in personal and social resources. In addition to connecting them to resources that assist in meeting their basic needs, social media provide access to positive social networks for youth experiencing homelessness. Connection to positive social networks is associated with engagement in fewer risk behaviors among youth experiencing homelessness (Rice & Barham-Adhikari, 2014).
Social media influence the lives of marginalized young people and open possibilities for positive connections and access to resources that can improve their well-being. Thus, it would benefit practitioners working with marginalized young people to be knowledgeable about the social media platforms utilized by young people and recognize the critical role they play in supporting and connecting youth to community that might not be possible to youth in their offline lives (Craig et al., 2015). Practitioners can more competently serve young people through facilitating the constructive use of social media with their clients and consider the ways that social media engagement can function as prevention and intervention strategies to promote the overall health and well-being not only of marginalized youth but of all clients served.
Practitioners may also find social media beneficial in increasing their competence to provide services to the clients with whom they work. For example, the True Colors Fund, a national organization working to address LGBTQ youth homelessness, created the 40 to None Network, a platform for service providers to gain access to best practices and policy updates regarding LGBTQ youth homelessness and to facilitate the exchange of practice-based dilemmas, questions, and answers among practitioners. Through the network, practitioners can access free educational modules, participate in online discussion groups, and share strategies for competently engaging a population that can be difficult to identify and engage in services and create a listing in a directory of service providers working with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. In their directory listing, practitioners can provide examples of affirming aspects of their practice that may be of particular interest to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, such as all-gender restrooms and non-discrimination policies that are inclusive of sexual and gender identity. Practitioners can also upload photos of the physical space in which they work, which allows potential clients to become familiar with the space before arriving in person. The organization has plans to turn the service provider directory into a mobile cell phone application to more readily assist youth experiencing homelessness in connecting with affirming service providers.
Social Media and Social Work Research
Social media have revolutionized the social science research enterprise through its production of “big data” (Grimmer, 2015; King, 2011). Data are being generated by humans at a depth and breadth unprecedented in human history, generating in turn new research questions and methods with which to answer them. Big data are defined here using the four V’s: volume, variety, veracity, and velocity (Fan & Bifet, 2012; Lukoianova & Rubin, 2014; Russom, 2011), The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) in its Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative, has named the use of big and social data among the challenges to be addressed in two working papers .
Social Media and the Grand Challenges for Social Work
Coulton et al. (2015) underscore the need for social work researchers to begin developing methodological expertise in big data analysis, including social media data analysis. The authors note that social work is adept at using large administrative data sets, which will translate to foundational knowledge in big data curation and processing. The paper offers recommendations for building big data analysis expertise within a decade, including adopting data science education into master’s and PhD curricula and attracting and retaining scholars passionate about data (Coulton et al., 2015). Big data methods have been employed in child welfare to predict outcomes of interest (for a review, see Russell, 2015), but scholarship pertaining specifically to social media data methods has not yet emerged in the literature.
Berzin, Zinger, and Chan (2015) underscore the importance of social work as the principal mental health provider in the United States. According to the authors, social media and other technologies promise to increase social workers’ capacity to deliver more efficient and effective services. Among the paper’s recommendations are increased expertise in areas like gaming, applications, and robotics for mental health service delivery.
Social Media as Intervention-Delivery Mechanism
An entire issue of the Journal of Technology in Human Services in 2016 was dedicated to examining the use of Web 2.0 technologies in social service delivery. Among the contributions was scholarship examining the intentions of counseling educators to teach students about mental health apps (East, Harvard, & Hastings, 2016), perceived effectiveness of online clinical supervision (Bender & Dykeman, 2016), the use of wireless sensors with mobile-based applications for child safety (Kinnunen et al., 2016), as well as an examination of how social work practitioners adopt technological advances in agency-based settings (Goldkind, Wolf, & Jones, 2016). The issue also offered an examination of social media as a medium for intergroup dialogue (Brady, Sawyer, & Crawford, 2016).
Social Media as Data Source
The use of social media as a data source in social work research is still an emergent area of inquiry. One key issue pertains to the lack of familiarity of many Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) with the data (Moreno, Goniu, Moreno, & Diekema, 2013). In addition, the classification of research using social media data is unclear: though generated by humans, social media data are often publicly available, either freely through an API or for a fee through a data archiver. Thus, one pertinent question for IRBs is whether social media data research is a secondary data analysis or an active recruitment study, where recruitment takes place through terms and licensing agreements.
A related research consideration concerns the means by which social work researchers acquire and analyze social media data. Generally, social media data require basic knowledge of computer language coding, large data storage and retrieval, as well as an understanding of computationally intensive data analysis techniques. While methods to handle large volumes of text and numerical data types are well documented in other fields (see, e.g., Cesare, Lee, McCormick, Spiro, & Zagheni, 2018; Grimmer & Stewart, 2013), social work education has not yet included these methods in standard social work education or research. Further, ethical concerns regarding the use of individual data without appropriate consent, or identification of differences between terms of service agreements and social science informed consent, are equally problematic for social work research employing social media data.
Social Media and Social Work Education
It is incumbent upon social work educators to ensure that social work students develop competencies regarding the use of social media in social work practice. The NASW Code of Ethics (standard 4.01) calls upon social workers to “strive to become and remain proficient in professional practice and the performance of professional functions. Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work” (NASW, 2008). As such, social work educators must themselves be knowledgeable about the intersections of social media and social work practice, including the previously mentioned issues related to the development of a professional identity, boundaries and dual relationships, client privacy and confidentiality, so they can adequately prepare their students for contemporary practice with individuals, families, communities, organizations, and policy settings. In addition to educating their students about ethical social media use, social work educators have the opportunity to integrate social media into their courses to enhance social work students’ educational experiences.
Utilizing Social Media in the Social Work Classroom
Social media are changing the way we learn. However, social work education has sporadically incorporated the use of technology, and social media specifically, with inconsistent success rates (Hitchcock & Young, 2016). While many social work educators possess the necessary skills to utilize social media in their daily lives, those skills do not always translate into meaningful pedagogical uses for social media in the classroom (Hitchcock & Battista, 2013; Kilpeläinen, Päykkönen, & Sankala, 2011). Participatory culture provides a pedagogical framework for utilizing social media in social work education (Hitchcock & Young, 2016). The participatory nature of social media engagement enables social work students to create, articulate, and disseminate ideas, both consuming and producing knowledge while engaging with others. The benefits of utilizing social media in educational processes are multiple; social media are best used in social work courses when they help students to achieve learning goals and develop competencies related to the course (Robbins & Singer, 2014). Benefits include the creation of a more student-centered experience, enabling students to demonstrate their grasp of course material when creating social media content; the development of competencies regarding the impact of social media on individual consumers and communities, enabling social work students to more competently engage with clients; the cultivation of collaborative and participatory learning environments; and the extension and application of student knowledge outside of the classroom (Gikas & Grant, 2013; Hitchcock & Young, 2016).
Educators across a range of disciplines have begun integrating Twitter, a microblogging platform, into their courses (Hitchcock & Young, 2016). Twitter’s mission is to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.” As of 2017, Twitter had over 328 million active monthly users from around the globe. Twitter can be utilized in various ways to enhance student learning. Students may participate in backchannel discussions, which occur simultaneously with a live presentation and enable students to share their reactions, pose questions, and engage with the content being delivered. Students can use Twitter to stay abreast of current knowledge related to social work practice and policy and to contribute to public discourse (Hitchcock & Young, 2016). Educators can facilitate this process by showing students how to identify, follow, and create lists of movement leaders, organizations, advocates, and researchers working within their specific areas of interest, enabling them to curate their own learning based on their specialized interests. Engaging with other social work professionals via Twitter also enables students to begin developing a professional identity. A third way to utilize Twitter in the social work classroom is through Twitter live chats. A live chat refers to a scheduled time when a specific topic will be discussed using Twitter. A Twitter live chat, or “tweet up,” involves the use of a specific hashtag that allows individuals to follow along and contribute to the live discussion. For example, the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth recently held a live chat (#NCFYTalk) with selected service providers and a documentary filmmaker to explore ways that film can help in the efforts to address youth homelessness. Hitchcock and Young (2016) detailed the implementation and evaluation of a Twitter live chat assignment in social work courses, finding that the assignment further developed students’ social work knowledge and facilitated student engagement with others.
In addition to Twitter, some educators have embraced the use of Wikis in their courses. A Wiki is a website that allows its users to collaboratively create and edit its content. Kilpeläinen et al. (2011) described the use of Wikis in teaching social work theory. For the theory course, students were divided into groups responsible for specific topics, such as post-modern social work theories. Each group developed its own Wiki page, collaborating on the creation of content about their theme. They were also responsible for reviewing and commenting on other groups’ Wiki pages. Students responded positively to the collaborative process of knowledge production enabled by the Wikis and appreciated the self-driven nature of the learning process (Kilpeläinen et al., 2011).
The use of Twitter and Wikis are two examples of ways social work educators have integrated social media into their courses. While students may possess social media skills, educator competence is integral to the successful integration of social media in the classroom. Robbins and Singer (2014) outline additional uses for social media in social work education, including expanding learning opportunities through collaborative agreements with social work programs in other geographic locations to create a more diverse learning experience; encouraging students to document real life instances of oppression and marginalization using their smartphones to provide real-life content integration into otherwise static discussions; creating content for podcasts, Twitter, or blogs about contemporary social issues being explored in class; and assisting students in the development of their own social media policies.
Social Media and Field Education
Field education is a core component of social work education, comprising 25% of the graduate social work curriculum, enabling students to receive, develop, and apply practical skills within an organizational setting (Voshel & Wesala, 2015). The NASW, ASWB, CSWE, and CSWA standards regarding technology and field instruction instruct field instructors to address technology use in organizational settings (NASW, 2017). As such, organizations that train social work students must provide clear guidance regarding social media use, particularly around what kind of contact between workers and consumers is permissible (Westwood, 2016). The development of an organizational social media policy that is in alignment with social work values and ethics is a recommended practice. Such a policy would be communicated to students during their orientation (Voshel & Wesala, 2015) and may vary depending on the mission and goals of the organization. In addition to the explanation of an organization’s social media policy, field instructors may wish to discuss with the student any variations between the organization’s social media policy and the school’s social media policy, as well as the use of both personal and professional social media (NASW, 2017).
Field instructors play an important role in the education of social work students and in the development of their professional identities. Developing a professional identity and setting professional boundaries are topics that extend beyond the classroom into the field education experience and are important considerations in the training of social work students, in particular regarding their social media use (Westwood, 2016). A clear social media policy, modeled by the field instructor, can help social work students meet their organization’s expectations with regards to contact with clients. Further, field instructors can guide students in the development of a professional social media presence, discussing the type of information that should be available to the public and considering how the information may be perceived by potential employers and consumers (Westwood, 2016). According to Voshel and Wesala, “Agency social workers who are field instructors have the capacity to become great mentors to the next generation of social work students. They must be prepared to address social media related issues as a part of professional practice, particularly focusing on social media relationships” (2015, p. 69). When social work students are supported in the intentional development of a professional social media presence, their careers can be enhanced through an exchange of knowledge and connection to a professional network of colleagues.
This article has offered an academic definition of social media; described the use of social media in social work practice, research, and education; and described areas undergoing further consideration. Social media have changed the way human beings live their lives, how they connect with others, and how they acquire information. Social work scholars and practitioners must advance their understanding of the digital world in order to remain relevant in the modern age. Important considerations include the effectiveness of social media as an intervention-delivery medium and as well as a research data source.
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