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“It just crept in”: The Digital Age and Implications for Social Work Practice

Posted on:
February 11, 2012

Today’s generation of youth and adults relies on communication technologies for entertainment, information, and social connections and more and more, for personal help and advice. With cyber technology having permeated the ways in which individuals seek support for a wide range of issues, the purpose of this paper is to report on a study that examined practitioners’ experiences and views of whether and how online communication has entered their face-to-face practice and of the implication for the therapeutic work.

Using qualitative methodology, 15 social work practitioners participated in focus groups and interviews exploring their perspectives about the impact of cyber technology on their traditional face-to-face social work practice.

The prevailing finding was that cyber communication has dramatically changed the nature of professional relationships. This key finding was supported by four major inter-related themes arising from the data:

  1. client driven practice;
  2. Pandora’s box;
  3. ethical grey zone; and
  4. permeable boundaries. Implications for practice are provided.

Implications for Practice

The ascendancy of the new cyber world has significant implications for practice. Cyber communication is practically universal among individuals of all ages and therefore cannot be avoided. It is not feasible to adopt a policy which prohibits cyber communication with clients. Regardless of the practitioner’s preference or the organization’s policy, clients can find and access practitioners—for example clients might access their e-mail address, can find information about them through search engines or contact them through social networking sites. As Gabbard et al. (2011) explain, ‘‘Facebook users may post photos and ‘tag’ or label another Facebook user by name without the knowledge or consent of the individual in the picture. Facebook users may discover that they are tagged in a professionally unbecoming photograph long after numerous others have seen it’’.

Practitioners and organizations must understand the issues and implications and be prepared to respond accordingly.

There appears to be an over-arching category or theme, which entails the changing nature of professionals’ relationships in the context of cyber communication. A significant finding that emerged is that in permeating or‘‘creeping’’ into social work practice, cyber communication has extended the boundaries between social worker and client. This extension is often client initiated, may occur without the practitioner’s consent, is a slippery slope, and may be beneficial or challenging, and has clinical, practical, ethical, and legal implications. Since a central legal and ethical requirement consists of developing and maintaining what are considered appropriate professional boundaries, the impact of the cyber world on therapeutic relationships must be acknowledge and addressed.

Individual practitioners and the social work profession as a whole must accept that the choice to allow cyber technology to infiltrate into traditional therapy is to some degree out of the hands of practitioners or organizations.The ubiquitous nature of cyber technology highlights the inevitability that cyber communication will ‘‘creep’’ into social work practice regardless of practitioner preference or agency policy. The responsible position is to examine and understand the consequences and implications in order to inform practitioner behaviour.

 

Summary

With cyber technology having permeated the ways in which individuals seek support for a wide range of issues, the purpose of this paper is to report on a study that examined practitioners’ experiences and views of whether and how online communication has entered their face-to-face practice and of the implication for the therapeutic work.
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