Familiarize yourself with social media ethics and use technology intentionally to educate your community and to build your private practice.
The Internet and social media offer social workers and mental health therapists unprecedented opportunities to educate communities, to advocate for disadvantaged populations, to raise awareness about their private practice and professional services, and to establish themselves as experts in their specialty areas. Because people search online for health-related information, developing a strong online presence is increasingly important for social workers in private practice.
One aspect of developing an online presence is through social media. Although social media sites were often originally seen as “kid’s stuff,” that is no longer the case. For the first time in history, more than half of adults in the United States—65 percent—report using social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others. Even though these numbers are continuing to climb, many social workers seem reluctant to use and embrace social media as a valid professional activity. Fear regarding breaches of client confidentiality, potential dual relationships, and maintaining personal privacy are often cited as reasons for this reluctance.
Professional associations struggle to provide guidelines about how to ethically respond to specific technology issues because technology changes so quickly, says San Francisco psychologist Keely Kolmes, but that doesn’t mean the existing rules don’t apply in the digital realm. Without clear guidelines for social media use, social workers and other mental health professionals are encouraged to engage in ongoing discussions about policy guidelines and to use their own professional judgment in order to apply the current Code of Ethics in the digital world.
Social workers and mental health therapists who blog, post on Facebook, or use Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, or any other social media should be deliberate in their behaviors—and mindful of the possible effects their online behavior may have on their clients and their careers. Engaging in meaningful and ethical social media activities can further the advancement of the core social work values: service to people in need, promotion of social justice, affirmation of the dignity and worth of each person, education on the importance of human relationships, demonstration of integrity and trustworthiness in our online behavior, and demonstration of a commitment to professional competence (NASW, 1999).
Here are suggested guidelines to mental health therapists engage in ethical social media use:
1) There’s no such thing as absolute privacy or anonymity
Privacy breaches in large corporations or agencies are frequently reported in the news, and they show that no matter how vigilantly you safeguard digital information, leaks can happen. The only way to guarantee your online privacy is to refrain from posting anything online. Because opting out of the digital world is rarely an option, it’s important to be mindful that your online activities, including social media, have the potential to be seen by others.
2) Be intentional in social media use
There are many personal and professional uses for social media. Clarifying your purpose and your goals for engaging in each social networking activity is an important part of ethical social media usage. What is your goal in setting up this account? What kinds of information do you want to share? Who are you trying to reach with this account? Developing a clear rationale and specific goals for engaging in personal and professional social media activities will help guide your efforts. Separate personal and professional social media accounts.
3) Separate personal and professional social media accounts
After you’ve developed a clear intention for your social media usage, create separate personal and professional accounts and profiles. For example, on Facebook, once you set up a personal profile, you can set up a separate professional business page for your private practice. Separating accounts into personal and professional helps protect your personal information and helps establish and strengthen your professional online presence.
4) Stay informed about privacy settings
Familiarize yourself with the privacy settings for each social media account and check frequently for updates. Privacy settings are not static and may change over time. Use the highest level of privacy settings on your personal accounts in order to protect your personal information. For professional accounts, use privacy settings on the lowest level so that more people can find your private practice business information.
5) Be cautious when posting about work on social media
Every social worker has difficult days, but venting on social media is not the best venue for processing challenging work situations. In addition to being cautious about posting about your personal responses to work, never post information about clients, period. The well-being of clients and respect for the therapist–client relationship should guide your social media activities.
6) Develop a social media policy for your practice
Developing a social media policy for your private practice is an excellent way to clarify for yourself and for your clients if and how you will be engaging professionally in social media. Components of a social media policy may include information about friending, following, interaction, business review sites, location-based services, use of search engine, and preferred method of communication (Kolmes, 2010). Social workers need not be reluctant to engage in social media as professionals—as long as they are aware of how to protect their own and their clients’ privacy, to protect the client–therapist relationship, to be intentional in social media activities, and to develop a comprehensive social media policy.
Social Media by the Numbers:
Facebook: 1.11 billion users
YouTube: 1 billion users
Twitter: 500 million total users
Google+: 343 million users
LinkedIn: 225 million users
Instagram: 100 million users
Pinterest: 48.7 million users
Wordpress: 66 million blogs
Julie de Azevedo Hanks, MSW, LCSW, BCD, is a member of the Private Practice Specialty Practice Section steering committee. She is also the owner and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy. She can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]
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(This article originally appeared in the National Association of Social Workers Specialty Practice Section Private Practice Newsletter Fall 2013)