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Social distancing as social workers: As informal online communication evolves, so too must guidelines that address its use

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Current physical distancing requirements have inspired many to embrace technology to maintain relationships, both at work and among friends and family. The same is true of social workers who, now more than ever, are using online communication technology to serve their clients.

But as the formal use of online information and communication technology in the social work profession grows, so too will its informal use, which can include text messages and friend requests from clients, emails sent between sessions or after hours, and the ability for both clients and clinicians to google each other online. While guidelines on how to handle such interactions exist, they are not well understood. Many social workers don’t know that they exist.

Faye Mishna, Professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work says the time is now ripe for social workers to address this issue. While there has been much research on the formal use of information and communication technology with encrypted platforms, informal interactions have long been ignored.

“Research has found that formal online counselling can be just as effective as face-to-face treatment. Social work regulatory bodies — including the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW) as well as social work associations such as the National Association of Social Work (NASW) — have developed clear guidelines to address formal technology use,” says Mishna. “In the literature the message around informal online communications has largely been: don’t do it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

In a recent study, Mishna and colleagues Marion Bogo, Lin Fang, and Lana Stermac found that 78% of social workers in Canada, 80% of social workers in the United States, 87% of social workers in the United Kingdom, and 74% in Israel use informal communications as part of their practice. This supports previous studies she and her colleagues have conducted, which have indicated that informal use of information and communication technology is prevalent in the field.

“The way that various communication technologies creep into informal use and issues around consent, trust, and the working relationship between a social worker and their clients needs to be better understood,” Mishna says. She and her colleagues found that a significant percentage of the social workers they surveyed did not talk to their supervisors or colleagues about their informal use of online communication.

Evidence indicates that informal communication can be really helpful for clients, though it can also cause significant challenges, Mishna says. She argues that discussion and more research is needed to determine best practices. Key questions include: how to address 24-hour availability to prevent burnout, what to do if a client sends the social worker a friend request how to handle an email or text message on a Friday night from someone who is suicidal and the temptation for social workers to find information about their clients.

“Regulators’ current guidelines are frequently general because of the complexities and nuances with which practitioners must often grapple when using information communication technologies,” says Mishna. “There needs to be discussions and workshops to talk through many of the challenges that arise.”

Until then, Mishna advises those currently in practice to be aware of the issues. She says it is important for social workers to talk to their clients ahead of time to set expectations and to return to the discussion over time. She suggests that the informal use of online communications be discussed with supervisors and colleagues as well.

“It is too late to say don’t do it,” says Mishna. “Technology has changed the boundaries of all aspects of our lives. It doesn’t mean you can’t have boundaries, it just means that they are changing.”

Learn more:

In this video from the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW),  Professor Faye Mishna presents a lecture for an Annual Meeting and Education Day (AMED) 2019 breakout session on informal information and communication technology (ICT) use among social workers and social service workers, and its impact on working relationships.