Virtual Boundaries: Ethical Considerations for Use of Social Media in Social Work

Virtual Boundaries: Ethical Considerations for Use of Social Media in Social Work


Virtual Boundaries: Ethical Considerations for Use of Social Media in Social Work

Ericka Kimball and JaeRan Kim

S ociety has become more interactive throughincreased access and use of the Internet andsocial media tools. Web 2.0 moved the Internet beyond information storage to a place where discourse takes place (Sawmiller, 2010). Social media, Internet tools that facUitate online interactions, have the potential to further expand such discourses. Social networks (for example, Facebook, Google + , Linkedin), blogs (for exam- ple, WordPress, Typepad), and microblogs (for example. Twitter, Tumblr) are types of social media tools that allow people to connect and share infomiation in an onhne space. People use social media tools to report information, present opin- ions, and solicit convenation through their own domains or dedicated websites. All of this online interaction, enabled further by increases in smart- phone and networked tablet devise usage, poses the potential for personal and professional lives to cross in social media spaces.

Existing literature has focused on the ethical challenges of social media in professional practice with clients, use of social media as an expansion of research, and for online learning (Eccles, 2010; Giffords, 2009; NASW & Associarion of Social Work Boards [ASWB], 2005). However, the con- versation around ethical use of social media, out- side the client—professional relationship, is missing. Areas in which greater discussion is needed include advising students and setting agency pohcies on ethical uses of social media and on the effects of personal use of social media among professional relationships.

This article is about creating virtual boundaries— the limits social workers place to guide their social media use—to create intentional online personas and about the effects of social media use in the intemiingling of personal and professional lives. Social workers need to be aware of the identities

they create and maintain in the realm of social media because of ethical codes and policies. The various forms and uses of social media are discussed to provide an understanding of the benefits and consequences of social media. An overview of eth- ical considerations is presented along with recom- mendations on creating virtual boundaries for personal and professional use of social media.

FORMS AND USES OF SOCIAL MEDIA Although the forms and uses of social media are constantly changing, blogs, microblogs, and social networking sites have proved to be some of the more popular social media tools over the last sev- eral years. Other social media tools, such as virtual world games, photo sharing, and information management sites, may be lesser-used tools but are StiU important to consider when setting virtual boundaries.

Blog and Microblog A blog (or Weblog) is defined as an online journal of personal reñections, opinions, and comments. Microblog content may also include personal reflec- tions, opinions, and comments but in a condensed format. Twitter, for example, limits content to 140-character posts and focuses on real-time inter- actions with others in users’ networks. Blogs are used professionally and personally to express personal opinions, market products and services, provide pohtical commentary, or share and disseminate infomiation for educational purposes (Qian & Scott, 2007). Blogs can be made pubhc or private to select people or groups. The author or authors of the blog may use their real names or pseudonyms.

Social Network A social network site (SNS) is an online space where people build a personal profile allowing them to

doi: 10.1093/sw/swt005 © 2013 National Association of Sociai Workers 185

share content and build cotmections (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). SNS sites such as Facebook or Google+ facilitate the opportunity for networking by exposing a user to broader networks and creating connections that may not otherwise occur. Until recendy, networking within an SNS was mosdy limited to predetermined relationships rather than building new networks with strangers because peo- ple have to invite or accept requests to connect networks (Boyd & Ellison, 2007).

Other Social Media Tools Many other tools that social workers and others use to interact via the Internet exist. To describe them all would be beyond the scope of this article, so a few tools are highlighted to provide additional depth in understanding the extent of social media tools in creating interactive communities. Interac- tive games such as Second Life provide virtual worlds where people interact and build communi- ties. These virtual worlds are often open, and large social networks may be created. Photo-sharing sites such as Flickr allow people to post and share pictures. Photos can be shared broadly or only with specific people. Social bookmarking sites such as Diigo and Evemote allow people to store and share favorite websites or other materials in a restricted or larger social network.


Social media tools allow social workers to continu- ally build social networks. Online networks often include colleagues, former classmates, friends, and family. In real life, these networks may be separate, but online these worlds collide in unforeseen ways (see Figure 1) (Houghton &Joinson, 2010). This is especially true with sites such as Facebook or Twitter, which were created to integrate social networks. Therefore, social workers are in need of policies and guidelines that assist in the ethical use of social media tools, including interactions with clients in social network arenas.

The NASW Code of Ethics (2008) does not include guidance on the use of technology. In 2005, the NASW and the ASWB published stan- dards specifically to guide the use of technology in social work practice, highlighting the importance of maintaining knowledge and understanding of how technology may aiFect social workers’ service provision to clients (NASW & ASWB, 2005). This guide provides a starting point in considering

Figure 1: The Way Networks Intersect to include Professional and Personal


Virtual Boundary

Note: This diagram shows the Viiay sociai media integrate isoiated sociai networks to connect vt/ork or schooi coileagues, famiiy and friends, and community contacts.

ethical guidelines for the use of social media in professional contexts but lacks guidance on the effects of personal use of technologies within the professional community. Given the rapid growth of personal use of social media tools since 2005, in particular with the increased use of smartphones and tablet devices, there is a need for further devel- opment of personal and professional considerations in technology use.


Social media are being used within various social work circles (that is, personally and professionally). Organizations—including academia—need to be proactive in setting acceptable use policies for social media to prevent ethical and legal violations. One common response is to ban social media use within an agency, a practice that creates obstacles if the agency later wants to create a social network profile to promote its services. Policies and guide- lines must be more nuanced than a straight yes or no to social media use within the agency or organi- zation. A committee of social media users, rather than top-level administrators who may not under- stand the nuances of social media, should help cre- ate policies and guidelines. In addition to social media users, it is important to have information technology specialists, legal representatives, and human resources involved in shaping social media use policies (Schwartzman, 2010).

The Sodal Media Governance Web site provides various templates and examples to help organizations

186 Social Work VOLUME 58, NUMBER 2 APRIL 2013

create social media policies (http://www.socialmedia When setting policies and guide- lines, it is important to clearly identify the difference between personal and professional representadon of your organizadon. One strategy is to use disclaimer language stating whether you are represendng your- self or your organization. It is also important to be clear about expectadons of the NASW Code of Ethics and other organizational policies when setting rules regarding the types of material that can be posted. This includes clearly written language about the incorporadon of clients into social networks. There are some areas of social work pracdce in which it may be perfecdy acceptable to engage clients through social media, yet it is important to make a clear distincdon between personal and professional representadon.

Many social workere underetand the ethical con- siderations around protecting client confidentiality, but the guidelines around respecting colleagues, the social work profession, and other professional relationships are less stressed in ethics trainings. In addidon, concerns about setting boundaries regarding clients’ personal social media sites exist. For example, social workers maintaining public blogs or microblogs such as Twitter wül need to decide whether and how they respond to com- ments written by cHents on their sites.

The following five questions provide a guide for social work professionals when making decisions about sharing information on their social network- ing sites:

1. Wliat information do you want to share? Use

the inherent reflective nature of social work to think about the information you are put- ting forward. Is this information important, hannful, protected, and so forth?

2. Why do you ivant to share this information?

Reflect on the purpose of sharing this infor- madon. What are the benefits of sharing? Is there an expected outcome from sharing this information?

3. Who needs to see this information? After consid- ering the puipose of sharing this infonnation, think about the role of your audience. Who are the people who will benefit or need to know about this information? WOl clients see this information?

4. Where do I want to share this information? After

determining who needs to see this informarion,

the quesdon of where to share this informadon follows. There are various social media tools that may have different or overlapping pur- poses. Where you share information depends on your answers to the three preceding questions.

5. How does the NASW Code ofEthia or other orga-

nizational policies gtiide sharing this itiformation?

After determining that you are going to share this information, examine and reflect on the NASW Code of Ethics and other policies that may affect the sharing of this infonnation.

For example, if you want to share an action alert about domestic violence policy to raise awareness in the general popularion, you may post such an item to Twitter with an understanding of the NASW (2008) Code of Ethics Ethical Standard 6: Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibihty to the Broader Society, which specifically calls on social workers to promote social justice by shaping public policies and engaging in social and political action (NASW, 2008). However, when participating in online political organizing and advocacy, caution should be taken to do so in a respectful manner. A contentious political atmosphere may disrupt professional and pereonal relationships. In addition, as professional and pereonal circles are increasingly overlapping in SNS, complaints about your work- day or clients may be seen by colleagues and may jeopardize your professional reputation.

SUMMARY In real ufe, we often use physical cues to help us identify our role and put the appropriate boundaries in place, but online it is more difficult to determine where our boundaries lie. This article provides an overview of various social media tools and uses along with pereonal and professional consideradons to help in guiding the ethical use of social media tools. As the use of social media continues to grow, the importance of virtual boundaries wül also rise. Therefore, proacdve consideradons that include policies and guidelines that encourage responsible and ethical use of social media are needed to help social workere mediate pereonal and professional boundaries,

REFERENCES Boyd, D. M., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites:

Definition, history, and scholarship. Joiíníii/ of Computer-Mediated Communications, 13, 210—230.

KiMBALL AND KIM / Virtual Boundaries 187

Eccles, A. (2010). Ethical considerations around the imple- mentation of telecare technologies. Jonma/ of Technol- ogy in Human Services, 28, 44—59.

Giffords, E. D. (2009). The Internet and social work: The next generation. Families in Society, 90, 413—419.

Houghton, D. J., &Joinson, A. N. (2010). Privacy, social network sites, and social relations. JoHma/ of Technology in Human Services, 28, 78—94.

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of eth- ics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http : // default.asp

National Association of Social Workers & Association of Social Work Boards. (2005). Standards for technology and social work practice. Retrieved from http://www. NASWTechnologyStandards.pdf

Qian, H., & Scott, C. R. (2007). Anonymity and self- disclosure on wehlo^. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12, 1428—1451.

SawmiUer, A. (2010). Classroom blogging: What is the role in science learning? Clearing House, 83(2), 44—48.

Schwartzman, E. (2010). Social media policy template. Retrieved from schwartzman/social-media-poHcy-template.aspx

Ericka Kimball, PhD, MSW, is assistant professor, Augsburg Gollege, 2211 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454, e-mail: JaeRan Kim, MSW, is a doc- toral candidate. University of Minnesota-Tunn Gities, St. Paul.

Originai manuscript received November 29, 2011 Finai revision received January 31, 2012 Accepted February 2, 2012 Advance Access Publication March 27, 2013


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