Tech & Career
By: Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
I begrudgingly admit, I am a social worker of a different generation. My early career developed with strict regulations of my behavior. My home phone unlisted and my address secure, there were no worries of “inappropriate contact” with client populations. My life was not up for discussion or stalking. I fondly remember those days of privacy. When I needed a referral for a client, I asked friends and colleagues or delved into my nonprofit phone book. Ours was called “the Red Book.” A nonprofit agency would gather the information every few years to sell as a resource. Many times during my searches, programs or contacts would be obsolete. Not a perfect system to say the least.
Investigating information on a particular provider’s efficiency or reputation proved almost impossible. Word of mouth or reading about clinicians in a journal (or the crime section of the newspaper) held the only clues to their status in the community. Hiring clinicians involved part gut instinct and part good references. A social worker’s reputation before the twenty-first century could be scrutinized with a department of children and family services search, a criminal background check (only in the state of hire), calling the department of professional regulation for a license check, professional references, and maybe a credit check.
The digital age is both a blessing and a curse. Resources are at our fingertips. Agencies have websites and directories. Clinicians have powerful tools to search for education, advocacy, or case management needs. There are even sites to track bed openings in programs. The downside is the amount of awareness and time a social worker must utilize to keep a professional profile on the Internet.
The early days of the Internet offered many people the opportunity to be anonymous in their free time pursuits. I took a year to come up with the “perfect” nickname for my AOL account. In the 21st century, the advent of Facebook and LinkedIn heralded a new rule, using our real names. The Internet became a more powerful search engine for the personal.
The first time I Googled my name, I found a link stating my social work license had been terminated. Immediately, I was on the phone with the office of professional regulation. While on hold, I followed the link to research what had happened. My LSW was discontinued because I now hold the LCSW. The initial information on the search engine did not disclose this. How many clients could misinterpret the information on a search? I initially did—so could they.
When I Google myself now, I have pages of information connected to my name. I regularly go through the information to manage the material related to me. Sometimes I may leave a comment on a website and forget I posted under my “real” name. This comment shows itself in an Internet search. I go back and delete the comment, if I can.
There is a difference between professional viewpoints and personal opinions. Because of the personal nature of social work, there is an ethical responsibility to manage personal information on the Internet. Clients are vulnerable to personal opinions and information about a clinician. Maintaining boundaries on the web is especially complex in today’s society.
The message is...social workers need to regularly oversee their social identities. At a time when the capabilities of search engines and third party data collection tools are increasing, our identities are at risk. Home addresses are accessible. Even when buying a home, the information is posted on government websites. Websites gather information from consumers on practice satisfaction and facilitation abilities when teaching. Search engines collect every comment and opinion left on websites. Review a book on Amazon? Everyone will know what you thought of the book. Have a Pinterest on food, clothes, or the politics you espouse? Anyone can search for it.
Digital natives may have a more difficult time managing their identities. These Internet users grow up with the Internet as part of their identity development. Social work students and young practitioners participate in the digital age through blogging, YouTube stations, Twitter, Pinterest, posting their opinions, and multiple other forms being developed. I don’t know about you, but I would not want clients seeing what I was thinking and doing as an adolescent. I did not even know about the profession of social work in high school to be able to manage my “identity.” What will the implications be to these new digital social workers and their client populations?
Digital privacy is still being fought in government circles. Current legislation is working to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The law passed in 1986, when the Internet was in its infancy. The revised Act of 2013 includes updated regulations for accessing third party information. Employers have the right to access social media sites of prospective employees. Only two states, Maryland and Illinois, have enacted legislation to ban this practice. One thing is for sure—privacy is not private any more. Social workers need to scrutinize their digital footprint to protect themselves and the clients they serve.
Gorman, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Philadelphia: Basic Books.
Keyser, J. (2013, April 23). Illinois facebook law makes it illegal for employers to ask for logins. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/01/illinois-facebook-law_n_1730077.html.
Leahy, P. (2013, March 13). Leahy, Lee introduce legislation to update electronic communications privacy act. Retrieved from http://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/leahy-lee-introduce-legislation-to-update-electronic-communications-privacy-act.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is an educator at National Louis University and Harper College. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog “Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice” to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 3. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.