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Supervisor and policy roles in social media use as a new technology in child welfare

Posted on:
April 25, 2017

This analysis examines the role of agency policy and supervision in the decision-making of child welfare workers about their work-related social media use. Data were collected using a mixed-methods internet-based survey of 171 child welfare workers and interns about their social media use related to their direct-practice work with child welfare clients. The study finds that supervisor approval and agency policy is correlated with worker's social media use, and that workers find utility in social media use, but have poor clarity about how they should use social media in the child welfare work setting.

These results suggest a need for agency policy and practice guidelines. Implications for child welfare agencies include an opportunity to consider the types of policy development necessary to ensure that multiple stakeholders are represented in policy and practice decisions, and that they reflect the possible benefits and risks of social media use.

Three studies demonstrate that child welfare workers use social media to inform their professional practice (Breyette & Hill, 2015; Sage & Sage, 2016a, 2016b), although the limited research in this area does not address how agency policy and practice informs workers' use of social media. Government agencies are encouraged to have social media policies (Bertot, Jaeger, & Hansen, 2012), but these social media policy recommendations typically do not address the unique role of child welfare workers who might use the information to make assessments about, or communicate with, families at risk (Sage & Sage, 2016a). Whereas the typical use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in government agencies originates with policy-driven agency directives that are reinforced in training and supervision, social media has crept into the child welfare workplace through employee use (Breyette & Hill, 2015). Therefore, the ways in which workers seek guidance about the use of social media may differ from the ways they engage in other kinds of agency practice. The authors investigated the role of agency policy and supervision in the decision-making of child welfare workers about their work-related social media use.

Implications for policy and practice

  • Since supervisory approval is associated with workers' perceptions of what constitutes an acceptable use of social media, as well as associated with their own use of social media in practice, this   suggests a logical point of influence in which to implement and assess best practices related to ICTs. Training about social media use, therefore, should include supervisors and perhaps even be  directed at supervisors rather than caseworkers.
  • Employee-driven innovation, versus employer-driven innovation, often materializes due to a worker's perceived need to complete a task, which can create tension as the worker and agency come to an agreement about the proper use and limitations of a user-initiated technology. Although the first two stages of the Social Media Adoption Model (Mergel & Bretschneider, 2013)   appear high-risk and chaotic, Mergel and Bretschneider clarify that these stages allow for experimentation and adaptations of use of social media that may better meet the goals of workers, and without these stages, restrictive agency policies may limit innovation and creative problem-solving. Workers feel ownership and value their involvement in developing agreements about how the technology will be used given the way that the technology is diffused from their personal experiences with it, and should, therefore, be part of the decision-making and implementation process regarding its sanctioned agency use.
  • This study adds to the literature by illuminating the association between supervisor approval of social media use and worker's actual attitudes about and use of social media.
  • This study also provides information about the reasons that child welfare workers engage in social media use, including their conflicted viewpoints about whether they should engage in social media searches of their clients, which  suggests that workers would benefit from greater guidance. Given the proportion of workers in this study who state that they use social media to search for clients in disagreement with their supervisor's guidance, it may be important that the agency helps workers develop insight into the real risks and benefits of social media use.
  • This study offers consideration for areas where child welfare agency administrators might develop targeted interventions to help workers make beneficial decisions about their work-related  social media use. These can include worker training, supervisor training, agency policies, and work groups that support implementation and practice.
  • Candid and open communication about the use of social media may reduce staff temptations to take actions that might have ethical implications (i.e., searching for clients out of curiosity).   Fast-moving technological innovation, policy and practice standards will likely necessitate adjustments in policy and practice as technology changes.



This analysis examines the role of agency policy and supervision in the decision-making of child welfare workers about their work-related social media use.