It’s always good to pause for a minute and consider the ethical and operational considerations for social workers and other front line care professionals when using social media in work settings and personally. There’s a growing debate around the issue of the private conduct of professionals and the implications of what information they make available to the wider public on their own social media pages. Increasingly the debate is moving into areas where there is a duty of confidentiality that any professional has to the people they serve and the imperative to investigate allegations of abuse against those vulnerable members of society that the professional is charged to protect.
Ever since 1889 the first act of parliament for the prevention of cruelty for children commonly known as the Children’s Charter was passed. This enabled the state to intervene, for the first time, in relations between parents and children. Anyone could be arrested when found ill-treating a child and workers enter a home if they thought a child was at risk.
We all are reasonably familiar with the terms ‘social media’ and ‘social networking’. Boyd and Ellison (2008) defined social networking sites as ‘web based services allowing individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile and display a list of other users with whom they share a social connection’. There are literally hundreds of millions of these profiles existing today, but there always has to be doubt about the accuracy of their information as there’s no guarantee of honesty. In a recent declaration by Facebook at a conference I co-hosted, they admitted to having 83 million false accounts and profiles. There’s a whole variety of reasons for this. Many people don’t like exposing all of their information, others create false personas for spamming purposes and the most worrying are those who create a platform to perpetrate criminal activity. A perfect example of this I saw in the news today where a Dutch group created an online presence of an avatar purporting to be a 10 year old girl from the Philippines and in no time at all they had received over 1,000 requests from all around the world encouraging her towards inappropriate activities.
Through my social care training company David Niven Associates I commissioned an online survey. This used a typical Likert response scale to measure respondents’ attitudes towards the use of social networking sites in a social work/safeguarding setting by asking the extent they agree or disagree with a particular statement.
A key overarching theme emerged here. Respondents continually made reference to the fact that a multi-agency approach to on-line safety is required and that this is a task not just for parents but in-fact anybody who is involved with children.
Respondents continually made reference to the fact that social networking sites need to have age limits in order to protect children from the potential dangers that may arise. It was often commented that….
“young children are unable to understand the safety issues involved in posting information publicly. They are also too immature to understand what may be appropriate in the public forum.”
There was however a feeling that children would ignore these age limits anyway and that this would be difficult to enforce especially as some respondents knew children whose age had been falsified, e.g.
“Children put in the incorrect date of birth regardless – I know because some of my nephews are on Facebook and they are only 9 and under and their parents are aware.”
Serious rumours exist about Facebook reducing the age of account holders from 13, which it currently is, to allow any age of child to have, own and operate a Facebook account. As children expose themselves on these social networks with pictures, location information and details about their personal lives advertisers and others who wish to take advantage of children will find it easier to do so (Washington Post, June 2012).
The research identified views that others who investigate child abuse as those who could benefit from access to social networking information for safeguarding purposes. e.g.
“Other agencies who work with children should be able to investigate social networking accounts to protect children from harm.”
Those who ‘strongly agreed’ that only law enforcement should investigate social networking accounts for evidence tended to identify issues related to legislation and the need for clear guidance as the reason behind their response.
Several authorities across the country are either asking existing duty teams or creating responsibilities for individuals to monitor sites of families where children are considered at risk. Tracy Connolly who has just been released from prison for killing her son regularly posted her thoughts on social networking sites up until the day baby Peter died. According to a Guardian newspaper report she shared how, instead of nurturing her son, she spent her days “drinking vodka”, “watching pornographic films” and “having sex with her boyfriend” she also said that she was madly in love with the most amazing guy and her “fella is just nuts”. Given that many professionals claimed ignorance of the boyfriend’s presence in the house or the nature of their lifestyle, accessing their posts of social media sites may have made a difference – tipping the balance and forcing a more rigorous examination of the child’s safety.
There’s so much more that can and should be said and discussed about the benefits and the dangers of social media, especially in how it’s used by professional bodies to scrutinise and monitor those at risk.
I have a full version of this survey if people are interested at firstname.lastname@example.org and will be glad to connect via twitter @DaveNiven