Ethical considerations for social workers
The considerations for social workers are based on existing professional standards and codes. Standards 3 and 5, The Professional Standards (Social Work England, 2019) state the ethical conduct that is expected of social workers in record keeping and technology use (including social media).
The Social Work England Professional Standards are statutory regulations, therefore social workers must adhere to them to maintain their registration to practice.
Alongside them, the Social Media Policy of the British Association of Social Workers states
the professional responsibilities of social workers and social work students, in relation to the increasing use of social media. (BASW, 2018; p.1). The recent version of the BASW Code of Ethics (2020, based on new Global Ethical Principles) also makes new reference to responsibilities in digital practice.
Social workers should note that their ethical considerations and reflections on how digital technology is used in any given situation significantly relates to questions of power:
- How, and by whom, has the technology been developed and how is it controlled?
- Who determines how and when it is used and how inclusive or exclusive is the process?
- How are its benefits determined and shared?
- In whose interest is this particular digital technology and its functionalities being deployed?
- Is there an abuse of power and risk to wellbeing behind how a particular digital technology is being used – whether by social workers or the people they work with?
Power is central to the answers to these questions.
In their use of digital technology in practice, social workers need to have at the forefront their responsibility to enhance wellbeing, human rights, social justice and equality, and must maintain professional integrity through critical reflection and ethical conduct.
Respect for human rights
OpenUphold dignity and best interests
When using digital technology, social workers should uphold and promote human dignity and the best interests of individuals and groups in society and avoid harm.
OpenRespect the right to self-determination
Social workers should respect, promote and support peoples’ dignity and right to make choices about their use of technology in services. This also means seeking consent to collect personal data, and where allowed by law, informing people before sharing their personal data.
Social workers should use digital technology to promote the involvement and participation of people using services in ways that enable them to be empowered in decisions and actions affecting their lives. This can include using technology for feedback, to enable people to participate in professional meetings, plan their care, or connect people to online self-care groups.
OpenPromote strengths-based approaches
When determining the technology that people need to meet their needs, social workers should focus on the strengths of individuals, groups and/or communities and support their empowerment. Social workers’ role should be about maximising the capacities of people to maintain their wellbeing and safety.
OpenUphold values and ethical considerations
In their use of social media and digital technology, social workers should always act in accordance with the values and principles of the profession and ensure that their online behaviour does not bring social work into disrepute.
Social workers should use digital technologies with people who use services in a way that is honest, reliable and open. If people are required to use certain technologies to access services, social workers should clearly explain why this is the case and offer choices, where possible. People should not be forced to use technology against their will, nor should they be excluded or made ineligible for services because they are not using technology.
OpenMaintain professional boundaries
Social workers should establish and maintain appropriate boundaries in their use of social media and social networking sites. They should critically reflect on how the information they share online can impact on their professional relationships with people who use services. They should also proactively seek to enhance their professional practice through technology – for instance for continuing professional development, reflection and engagement.
Social workers have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to challenge the purpose and principles behind and use of digital technology found to discriminate or negatively impact people. This can be done collectively, with support, through the professional body, or anonymously through whistleblowing. The starting point for any challenge should be the ethical considerations, alongside evidence of impact of harm.