Who is looking at you? Social media, the new assessment tool

A guest post by Eileen Joy (PhD candidate, University of Auckland)

You’re a busy social worker…. you have a client, you are worried about them, they have missed two of their most recent appointments, in the past they have talked about suicide ideation and you know that their current living arrangement is precarious. You try texting them, there is no answer. You try phoning them, there is no answer. You try an email, and get no reply. You even might try visiting where they live, and nothing.

Or maybe, you have a client, a young client, and you’re worried about who they are hanging around with. You have a suspicion that they are involved with the client of another social worker, and that could be ‘bad’ for both of them, but so far, neither of you have been able to figure out the connections between these people.

Or you suspect that the parents of your client are not telling the truth, you worry about the safety of this child for whom you are a social worker. You have a gut feeling something is off but nothing definite.

You have a Facebook account, practically everyone does now. Recent statistics indicate that Facebook has over 2 billion monthly active users (Statista, 2017) , and that over 60% of New Zealanders have a Facebook account (Fyers & Cooke, 2017). The odds that your clients, or associated individuals, in any one of the aforementioned scenarios have a Facebook account, are high. The question is, should you use your Facebook account, or any social media, or even Google, to search for your clients to see what they have posted online?

This is a relatively new position for social workers to be in, and because of that little research is available to inform us on how prevalent the practice is, and certainly none of the research we have available thus far speaks to this from a New Zealand perspective. However, what we do have available, from similar Anglophone countries, reveals not only a lack of policy around this, but disturbing trends about how social workers are using social media.

In a small, recent study, Ryan and Garrett (2017) report that whilst 72% of the social workers they surveyed found the idea of ‘looking up’ clients to be ethically questionable there were still the remaining 28% that did not. Of relevance to the New Zealand situation one interviewee commented that such behaviour is like that of “community welfare officers” – akin to our WINZ – and “suggested social workers take more advantage of it.” (Ryan & Garrett, 2017, p. 7). You have to ask, in the present climate, do New Zealand social workers want to be more associated with the sort of behaviours condoned by the current WINZ climate or are we different? Should we be different?

More concerning statistics come out of a study from Sage and Sage (2016), of child protection social workers and their practice with regard to social media, Facebook in particular. They found that 55% of respondents thought it was ‘acceptable in some instances’ to conduct a curiosity search on Facebook for clients, with 43% saying they had done so. Note that a curiosity search is not the sort of situations indicated above, where safety could, arguably, be a factor, these are simply the sort of searches you might conduct to say, look for a long-lost boyfriend on Facebook to see what they are up to. Rather more worrying is evidence from Breyette and Hill (2015) indicating that social workers are creating ‘fake profiles’ to conduct this sort of surveillance – a worrying trend that is certainly gaining hold within government departments in New Zealand (RadioNZ, 27 September, 2017).

It is questionable whether our own New Zealand codes of practice via ANZASW or SWRB even cover this type of behaviour, they certainly do not expressly mention it, although one could make an argument on the grounds of informed consent, human rights and social justice. In fact, most codes of conduct and discussion of the use of social media by social workers seems to be more concerned with how social workers might protect themselves against clients, not how clients might protect themselves from social workers.

So, in the absence of clear policy, what are the questions we need to ask ourselves when we find ourselves considering whether or not to conduct a social media search on Facebook for our clients?

  • If social work is founded upon human rights and social justice, what does it mean that we are considering or conducting these searches?
  • How else might we get this information without informing the client that we are doing so, and would that behaviour be deemed illegal? For example physical stalking, covert surveillance.
  • What would this do to any therapeutic alliance we have with clients if we conduct these searches and what would do we do with the information found? Do we document it, and how?
  • How reliable is the information that we might find on social media? Researchers have demonstrated that there is a performative aspect to social media with plenty of lies, exaggeration and catering to certain audiences used (see: O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011 and boyd, 2011). This is the ‘fake news’ phenomenon personalised.
  • Given the complexity of privacy settings, and how they are constantly updated on social media, how can we truly expect people to keep up and keep their information private? And in considering this, how do we expect the most vulnerable members of our society, often our clients, those under stress, suffering from mental illness, cognitive decline or disabilities, to understand something like this?
  • If we do, given the above, still expect people to keep things private, because, ‘if they do not, aren’t they asking for it’ are we really upholding principles of human dignity or are we simply victim blaming?

These are some of the big questions that social work today has to answer with regard to social media surveillance, that individual social workers have to consider. Perhaps though, ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, what could we find out on social media that we could not simply find out by asking (Kirschner, Brashler, Wynia, Crigger, & Halvorsen, 2011)? And if the client does not answer us, is that not their right to do so? If we then go and seek to find out such information without their consent, what does that then say about our willingness to allow our clients to self-determine? Is this social work, or are we simply, as Foucault (1995) asserts, agents of the carceral (prison) state?

Image credit: Poster Boy


boyd, d. (2011).  Dear voyeur meet flâneur… sincerely, social media.  Surveillance and Society, 8(4), 505-507. Retrieved from:

Breyette, S. K., & Hill, K. (2015). The impact of electronic communication and social media on child welfare practice. Journal of Technology in Human Services33(4), 283-303.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.).  New York, United States: Random House.

Fyers, A. & Cooke, H. (2017, March 23).  Facebook is New Zealand’s second favourite leisure activity.  Retrieved from:

Kirschner, K. L., Brashler, R., Wynia, M. K., Crigger, B. J., & Halvorsen, A. (2011). Should health care professionals Google patients or family members?. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 3(4), 372-376.

O’Keeffe, G. S., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics, 127(4), 800-804. Retrieved from:’Keeffe_and_Pearson._2011._The_Impact_of_Social_Media_on_Children,_Adolescents,_and_Families.pdf

Ryan, D., & Garrett, P. M. (2017). Social work ‘logged on’: Contemporary dilemmas in an evolving ‘techno-habitat’. European Journal of Social Work, 1-13

Sage, T. E., & Sage, M. (2016). Social media use in child welfare practice. Advances in Social Work17(1), 93-112. Retrieved from:

Statista, (2017). Numbers of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 2nd quarter 2017 (in millions).  Retrieved from:

4 replies on “Who is looking at you? Social media, the new assessment tool”

Interesting article. I am pretty sure a lot of employers would already do this as part of standard practice.

Anything written on an insecure public forum is, for all means and purposes, public information and I think it’s naïve to expect people to act ethically around the viewing of this.

Hmmmm. Just because employers already do it and it’s legal doesn’t make it ethically right. And use of deception is worrying in my view. I feel this issue is an example of technology creating an intervention that is being normalised without a thorough review of the professional ethics and, furthermore, the implications for non service-users caught up by the surveillance. The phenomenon needs more discussion in the profession.

Yes, agreed Ray, many employers absolutely do it now as a matter of course. A surveillant practice that we have become (rather reluctantly) accustomed to. This is quite different though, a social worker conducting surveillance (often on behalf of the state) over someone in (often) a vulnerable position. I am fairly certain that whilst most people expect employers to conduct this sort of search, most would not anticipate their social workers doing the equivalent.

You comment about it being a “public” platform is also interesting, and calls into question assumptions made about shared understandings of what public and private actually mean. Most think we share assumptions on this, but research demonstrates this to be anything but. Indeed, the idea that we don’t share our lives with neighbours is a relatively new concept as worlds were much less boundaried in the past (think small towns). Privacy is now more of a negotiated concept, we do this via loyalty cards, membership schemes, and indeed joining social media. However, we can carefully “curate” our audiences within such platforms as a mean of controlling that space between the two. This is what purists of the public/private dichotomy miss, the boundary was never distinct, but always shifting, and simply because it shifts doesn’t mean we should take advantage of it.

As for the naivety issue, no, there is no expectation around it. Rather, I would ask people stop and actually think about the ramifications behind their behaviour, actually apply some ethical thinking. Naive to expect that people should act ethically? Are we saying it is naive to expect social workers to behave ethically? That’s a rather big call, and certainly somewhat demeaning to many practitioners who do their very best to behave in ethically consistent ways.

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