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Growing Use of Technology in Social Work: What Do Ethics Have to Do with It?

Nick Cross
Nick Cross

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) last updated the Social Work Code of Ethics in 2008. As a point of reference (1, 2) that was when the Wii Fit and iPod Touch were released and the year Hulu launched. It was also the year that the Apple App Store was created and the year the Android operating system launched.

Yes, a lot has changed in 7 years.  And at a rapid pace. A document like the Code of Ethics is supposed to transcend time and be applicable in a variety of settings.  At its core, the Code does provide the ethical standards needed to thrive in today’s social media and Internet crazed society.  However, reading through the Code of Ethics, there are very few references to anything “electronic.” In the edition of the Code prior to 2008, there was one reference to technology in the Informed Consent section, and another in record keeping. Nothing has been added since.

As with other areas of social work practice, NASW created a “Standard of Practice” for technology.  The NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice was published in 2005.  I highly recommend reading through it at some point.  NASW has published many blog posts and other articles related to social work practice and technology, but nothing that would carry the same weight as these Standards or the Code of Ethics.

To me the below quote from the introduction really summarizes the entire document:

“Social workers should acquire adequate skills that use technology appropriately, and adapt traditional practice protocols to ensure competent and ethical practice. “

Below I’ve written a one sentence summary of each of the 10 Standards of Practice.

Standard 1 – Ethics and Values – Social workers should act in an ethical manner abiding by the NASW Code of Ethics.

Standard 2 – Access – Social workers should advocate for clients to have access to technology.  This also means that social workers need to present their services in an accessible manner.

Standard 3 – Cultural Competence & Vulnerable Populations – Remember that when you can’t necessarily see the client you are serving, you might not see the nuances of non-verbal cues and/or cultural barriers to treatment.

Standard 4 – Technical Competencies – Social workers should “become proficient in technological skills and tools required for ethical and competent practice.”

Standard 5 – Regulatory Competencies – Social workers are liable for laws governing their home state and the client’s home state relating to practice and any laws governing your method of communication.

Standard 6 – Identification & Verification – Make it easy to verify your identity.  And obtain offline contact info for your client.

Standard 7 – Privacy, Confidentiality, Documentation, and Security – Make sure you get informed consent related to technology usage in your agency and takes steps to safeguard data.

Standard 8 – Risk Management – Have proper infrastructure in place to protect yourself and clients.  Risk management, document everything and backup your stuff!!

Practice Competencies

Standard 9.1 – Advocacy & Social Action – Use technology to help advocate for clients, both collective advocacy and case advocacy.

Standard 9.2 – Community Practice – Social workers should be aware of technology and advocate for its use when it could improve the community or their client’s situation. “Social workers should strive to ensure access to technology and the benefits of technology for all members of the community.“

Standard 9.3 – Administrative Practice – Social workers should be aware of and implement technologies that can improve the administrative functions of an organization/agency.

Standard 9.4 – Clinical Competencies  – Social workers should understand how the dynamics of the Internet are impacting their clients, including feasibility for online interventions. How does using technology impact (good or bad) the client?

Standard 9.5 – Research – Research using technological tools should follow ethical standards and use informed consent to ensure privacy, and use technology tools that allow for high credibility.

Standard 9.6 – Supervision – All rules and laws governing supervision remain in place if using online supervision.  Supervisees should be aware of licensing requirements and standards for online supervision.

Standard 10 – Continuing Education – Online continuing education is valuable but participants should be aware of rules related to continuing education credits and verify validity of hours. Providers of continuing education should take steps to verify identity of practitioners and accessibility of content.

There is a lot to think about and dig through within NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. I hope you take some time to dig deeper on your own. How have you applied these Standards within your current practice? What are some areas that you have questions about?

This post was edited from a published article by Nick Cross in NACSW’s July, 2014 issue of Catalyst. Nick Cross, LGSW, is a School Social Worker in Minneapolis and Social Media Consultant. He has been a member of NACSW since 2003 and can be found on Twitter at @mps_crossSSW.

3 thoughts on “Growing Use of Technology in Social Work: What Do Ethics Have to Do with It?

  1. Thanks Nick for this great summary! This is an area that will only become more and more important to social workers. It would be wonderful to have Christian social workers at the forefront of these ethics discussions!

  2. Hi Nick and Rene,

    As a Luddite, I am not very savvy with social media. However, I am aware that many of my agency's clients are socially isolated and reach out via social media. So, I completely concur that even I have to "get with the program". I so appreciate the support you provide to NACSW in this great opportunity to connect.


  3. I agree Rene, there has been a lot of great information published about social media. We need more people to conceptualize it into the social work realm and who better to set that example and process than Christian social workers!

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