Social Media and Social Work: A Question of Ethics

Social media apps offer social workers powerful aids to their practices, but new ethical dilemmas, as well. Practitioners are figuring out how to utilize programs such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Web-based blogs in ways that are consistent with the long-standing rules of their areas of practice—and they don’t all agree on how to go about it.

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“I think that it’s important for us to consider our online presence and to be able to look at the challenges that our online presence poses for us… how our online presence complements or conflicts with our professional sense,” Kathryn Chernack, a licensed counselor, said during a January 2013 interview with Steven Schwartz of the University of Buffalo-School of Social Work’s “InSocialWork” podcast series.

The Social Media Challenge

Kathryn Chernack knows the challenges firsthand as a private-practice counselor and the director of clinical services for community residential programs at St. Christopher Ottilie Family of Services. In addition, she is chair of the National Association of Social Workers’ New York State Chapter Ethics Committee.

Chernack has frequently shared her thoughts on the social media challenge, not only in interviews, but in articles, too. The thorniest questions, in her view, involve patients’ privacy and confidentiality, matters of informed consent, solicitation of clients, and conflicts of interest.

Some situations are fairly cut and dried: for example, a client who sends his or her social worker a Facebook friend request. Most social workers agree that they would never accept it. But other situations present more room for debate.

Checking Social Media Profiles

In her interview, Chernack cited instance of emergency rooms and psychiatric wards where a newly admitted patient indicates a desire to commit some kind of self-harm, up to and including suicide. In order to know how serious the suicide risk might be, the social workers on hand decide to look up the patient’s social-media profiles on Facebook , Twitter, and the blogosphere to gain a better understanding of the patient’s personal life and look for any patterns of suicidal tendencies.

This background searching actually runs against established social-worker practice. According to Chernack, the published codes of ethics mandate that social workers respect their clients’ privacy and not track down information about them that they would not wish to share.

So are the emergency-room workers wrong? Not at all—as long as they are conducting their online search for the right reasons for the patient’s own safety and recovery. That’s completely different from situations in which psychologists and social workers Google their patients out of simple curiosity.

The latter is a habit that Chernack does not encourage. While the Internet clearly gives social workers ample capacity to find out information about clients independently of the clients, she advises social workers to limit their use of that power to cases in which it is necessary, and to refrain from any “lurking” into their clients’ lives.

The Twitter Feed

On a similar note, she’s not keen on social workers “following” their clients’ Twitter feeds. She cites several additional professional principles as to why not: client confidentiality, personal-professional boundaries, and legal liabilities. The first is clients’ confidentiality, which can be jeopardized in this situation because a counselor following a client could indicate to others that the two know each other.

“We need to remain alert to the ways in which our online presence complements or conflicts with our professional self.” ~ Chernack

Personal-professional boundaries also concern Chernack here, because the clients might take the following as an invitation to interact with the counselor outside of session hours and send the counselor messages while expecting responses to them. On a third note, legal liabilities could even arise—if the client posts an update indicating suicidal thoughts and the counselor did not respond, he or she could be at risk for a lawsuit.

Social Workers “Going Renegade”

Of course, the clients aren’t the only ones with Facebook and Twitter accounts. Their social workers are just as likely to have them, too. And they, just like their clients, are held accountable for what they post on them.

Matthew Robb expressed concern in a 2011 commentary for Social Work Today about social workers harming their patients and jeopardizing their own careers by impulsively blogging unflattering details about clients without their consent, or posting inflammatory statements about subjects such as politics or race, which may be less harmful to the clients but can put the entire profession in a bad light.

“Concerned ethicists fear they are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of social worker—the renegade blogger—whose stealthy, unethical disclosures and intemperate rantings suggest a new normal. The implications are chilling,” Robb wrote.

It’s fine for social workers to keep these digital accounts, in Robb’s view. But they must choose their words carefully, even more so than in real life—unlike in real life, digitally typed words can stay around forever. His recommendations:

  • Don’t post anything about one of your clients unless that client has given you written permission to discuss it with others. And even then, leave names and other identifying details out.
  • If you blog, be prepared for the responses from readers. Sometimes the comments can be quite fierce. On the same token, don’t be too surprised if your clients blog about you. It does happen.
  • Be consistent when you blog. If what you tell clients in sessions differs from what you tell your blog readers, those clients will catch it, and you will lose their respect for it.
  • Refrain from “liking” groups and causes on Facebook. You never know whom you might needlessly alienate.

What Can Social Workers Do on Social Media?

There seems to be much that social workers should not post or share on social media. But the wealth of information that they can and should share is far greater. Twitter can be a great professional resource for sharing and finding articles, studies, and best practices. Just ask Chernack, who maintains an active and very information-rich Twitter feed, @DrKChernackLCSW. Her podcasts and writings go up on it, as does the occasional non-political world news story that she finds noteworthy.

Many other social workers share their work and scholarship via personal blogs. Some focus on political advocacy and social justice—including their personal experiences and what other campaign organizers can learn from them. Social work theory, practices, and reflections on social work dominate others. The counselor Relando Thompkins shares 13 favorite counselors’ blogs in a Jan. 7, 2013, post on his own blog, He praises all such blogs as effective means to tell others what counseling is all about.

Keep professional blog content professional. Don’t write about depression and follow that up with what you ate for breakfast.

“Sometimes, those who are unfamiliar with the profession can be left with a one-dimensional stereotypical view of who social workers are or what they do. Now, more than ever, it has become increasingly important to tell our own stories, and there are many social workers who have taken to the Web or use technology to fulfill this end,” he writes.

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Technological Competence

Chernack fully acknowledges social media’s vast information-dissemination value. She also accepts social workers’ use of Twitter for non-work-related, personal posts, as well. But discretion is key: If a social worker wants to post on Twitter for personal reasons, then the feed should have no link whatsoever to his or her professional affiliation or contact info. That social worker might consider, for instance, using an alias for a Twitter handle or Facebook profile name.

And if you maintain a professional blog, Chernack adds, keep its content professional. Don’t write about depression and follow that up with what you ate for breakfast.

She also recommends giving thought to how much commenting you might allow on your posts. You might opt to close them from comments altogether. This is the safest approach, in her opinion.

A growing number of social-work agencies are posting guidelines regarding social media use on their websites. Social workers can check with their institutions to see where they stand, according to Chernack. She further encourages social workers to seek guidance at any time from supervisors. Or, if they run private practice, then they should let the long-standing professional codes, such as the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, be their guide. They might also keep a lookout for social-media-use trainings and seminars that can help them understand the fine points of appropriate online activity.

“As social workers, we are told to practice within areas of competence. We need to be competent within the areas in which we practice. And that extends to our use of technology,” she told Schwartz. “We need to remain alert to the ways in which our online presence complements or conflicts with our professional self.”


InSocialWork Podcast Series. “Episode 110: Kathryn ChernackSocial Media Use and Social Work Practice: Boundary and Ethical Considerations.” University of Buffalo School of Social Work. Jan. 7, 2013.

Robb, Matthew. “Pause Before Posting: Using Social Media Responsibly.” Social Work Today. January-February 2011.

Thompkins, Relando. “13 Compelling Social Work Blogs.” Jan. 4, 2013.

University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work. “Social Media Considerations for Social-Work Students.” University of Wisconsin-Madison. Aug. 16, 2013.