By: Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
Editor’s Note: Please join me in welcoming our new technology columnist, Ellen Belluomini. I am pleased to have her on board as our newest contributor!
I heard a startling statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor—“65% of today’s grade school kids will end up at jobs that haven’t been invented yet.” The report was written in 1999, more than a decade ago. This future is here. Googling the Thomas Suarez TED video on iPhone Application Development, we can begin to understand how children are evolving through technology. Thomas is ten years old, and yet he has accomplished things most adults today will never even attempt, because they lack technological literacy.
Social workers, our time has come. Technical literacy is now a cultural competency, emerging into awareness much like the need for multiculturalism in the ’60s or continuous ethical training of the late twentieth century. The clients we serve integrate technology into their lives like the weaving of thread in a fabric. Technology is another color of thread. If we are not assessing the impact of technology on our client populations, then this is a disservice to them and our profession. Some of our populations flourish with technology, and yet others are in technology deserts, falling behind further in a digital divide in which they may not recover.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) created technology standards of practice in 2005. The general code of ethics encompasses cultural competency. Our global cultural shift includes technological advances, but varies depending on the part of the world. The NASW and ASWB technology standards outline the changing role of the social worker in relation to technological advances in society. If you know of social workers not familiar with these standards, please, introduce them. Until social work education is updated with current technological training, social workers with technological literacy should educate others on the integration of technology into practice.
There are three approaches to the integrative process of technology into social work practice—proactive, reactive, and rejection. The rapid pace of change makes living fully in any one of these areas impossible. If we are looking at percentages, we want to be proactive most of the time, constructive in our reaction to new knowledge, and reject those areas that are destructive or insufficient. Rejection is a rare occurrence. Usually rejection is due to lack of resources or use of a non-technical tool.
Proactive behavior occurs with reading about current technologies that affect evidence-based practices, client populations, ethics, agency processes, and advocacy solutions. Being in private practice, I work to stay up to date on technologies affecting adolescents and families. There are online services to help “catch” articles of interest to educate my practice. If there is a specific problem in a family system, I look online for alternative approaches, including technological solutions.
There are situations in which the focus changes to reactive. This is where critical thinking about technology is important. An adolescent girl, in therapy for inappropriate relationships with boys, discussed a conversation on Snapchat. At the time, I had never heard about this application. During my investigations, I found how easily Snapchat could be used inappropriately and place her at risk. An overall discussion with the parents on how to decide phone app safety ensued without breaking confidentiality of the daughter. Issues of safety and using apps in a positive manner helped the daughter with her communication.
Rejecting technology can come in many forms, but always from an educated understanding of the benefit derived from the action. Rejection is different from denial. Denial is about not believing technology is an issue in social work practice. Rejection is a decision against using technology because it is contraindicated in treatment, there is a sounder evidence based treatment, or another type of tool may enhance the client’s life or treatment process. If a client does not have Internet access, assignments will not include the Internet. They may, however, include research into low-cost or free Internet service for low-income populations. This loops back into the proactive/advocacy part of the equation.
Start with an assessment of “how technology affects the client’s system.” There are numerous evidence-based practices being translated to a technical format. What types of technology could be useful? How can you educate your clients to maneuver through technology safely or advocate for themselves? Vulnerable populations need social workers to address the inequities of technology access, economic disparity, and digital exclusion to address marginalization (Steyaert & Gould, 2009; Wei & Hindman, 2011). An individual assessment of your practice and an agency evaluation helps to increase awareness of best practices with technology.
The digital divide is becoming ever increasing through social work populations. Advocacy for digital literacy, technology inclusion, and access is a need now. NASW ethics, cultural competency, or the need for technology to be a basic human rights—they all point toward change for social workers. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” The change in the digital divide starts with you.
National Association of Social Workers, & Association of Social Work Boards. (2005). Technology and social work practice. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/practice/standards/naswtechnologystandards.pdf.
Steyaert, J., & Gould, N. (2009). Social work and the changing face of the digital divide. British Journal of Social Work, 39 (4), 740-753.
United States Department of Labor. (1999). Futurework—trends and challenges for work in the 21st century. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/herman/reports/futurework/report.htm.
Wei, L., & Hindman, D. (2011). Does the digital divide matter more? Comparing the effects of new media and old media use on the education-based knowledge gap. Mass Communication & Society, 14 (2), 216-235. doi:10.1080/15205431003642707.
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, Spring 2013, Vol. 20, No. 2. Copyright White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.