Social media considerations for social work students

While it is common in our culture to tweet day-to-day experiences, check in on Foursquare throughout the day, and Instagram memorable events, it is easy to get used to openly sharing a great deal of information about daily life. However, as a professional-in-training, your online persona should be managed as carefully as you would mind your actions, speech, and dress in the workplace. 

Professional social workers must be mindful of social media use because information shared on social media platforms can be used by clients, other professionals and the general public to shape opinions about you and social workers as a whole.  Maintaining primary social work values like client privacy and confidentiality are of utmost importance, and upholding one’s reputation is critical to competent, successful practice.  

Social workers’ professional behavior is guided by the National Association for Social Worker’s Code of Ethics, the State of Wisconsin Conduct Statutes found in the Marriage & Family Therapy, Counseling and Social Worker Administrative Code (Chapter MPSW 20), and general business practices.  As closely as possible, students in the School of Social Work are expected to model professional standards of behavior as they conduct themselves in any public forum, whether it be online or off. Students are also expected to abide by the School of Social Work’s Student Rights and Responsibilities

We have distilled those standards down to a few key practices that should be kept in mind when using social media or dating websites. The following guidelines can be used to help protect yourself and the clients who seek your services, along with your reputation and future livelihood as a social worker:

  • Assume that anything said or done online is public.  Do not post any content that you would be uncomfortable sharing with the entire world. There have been instances where private user data has become unintentionally visible to all users during a service upgrade or change.  Users have also reported the reappearance of deleted data on some sites.
  • Negative comments about clients, your field placement or work environment are inappropriate and disrespectful.
  • Discussions about clients are always off-limit, even when speaking generally.  Such discussions are a breach of confidentiality, a primary professional value of social workers.  Additionally, your group of friends could easily include an acquaintance of your client, especially in our increasingly inter-connected world.
  • Avoid posting photographs or content that imply unprofessional behavior, such as photographs that could suggest to the viewer binge drinking, gambling, sexual behavior, etc.
  • Avoid using social media during class or in field settings, unless part of the curriculum

Privacy is also of utmost importance when using social media as a professional. It is highly recommended that students who choose to utilize social media sites take precautions to keep personal information private, out of a concern for both professionalism and personal safety. Precautions can include:

  • Limit social media account settings to share content with only vetted friends and family
  • Never “friend” or add a client to your network; Avoid digital communication with clients outside of the workplace
  • Use a pseudonym for online accounts to mask your identity
  • Refrain from listing personal information, such as home address, cell phone number, or intimate details about your personal life
  • Turn off automatic location information on social media posts
  • Limit or avoid check-in platforms like Foursquare that make it easy to find a person’s location.

Following these guidelines can help to avoid consequences ranging from negative impact on the reputation and career of individual students, to undermining the reputation of the School of Social Work or public trust in social workers.