The ethics of using Facebook in child protection practice

By Liz Beddoe and Tarsem Singh Cooner  

We presented this short video at the recent Social Work and Social Development conference in Dublin, July 2018: Facebook: An unethical practice or an effective tool in child protection.

Social media networks have redefined how we are able to keep in touch with family and friends, find people and relate to others. Research has shown that social workers have been using social media, both collectively and individually, as a way to ‘collapse borders’ between social workers and service users to gain another view of their lives through monitoring of Facebook pages (Joy 2017) . While it is known that such practices go on, no research has shown how Facebook is actually used in case work with families and under what circumstances.

We created this short video to stimulate debate about the ethical issues of social media use by social work professionals. We draw on some findings from an ESRC funded research project into child protection processes in England*. This large ethnographic study of child protection social work practice in England  involved 15 months of participant observation at two sites. The study observed incidences of Facebook being used by social workers as part of risk assessment and on-going case work with families. Sage and Sage (2016) observe, with reference to social work assessments, that there is a lack of research about how social network sites are being used to inform social work practice. On the one hand such practice can be viewed as an acceptable tool for social workers with concerns about the truthfulness of service-user information. On the other, they are seen as an intrusion across the border into (semi) private spaces. These contentious positions: the surveillance of Facebook and the issues of consent and power underpinning this practice are both worthy of ethical exploration within the profession.

Our paper, first given at SWSD 2018 in Dublin, reports how social workers provided researchers with a rationale for their use of Facebook and analyses the ethics of such practice in the context of the specific concerns in the cases and the broader issues of power and human rights.

*The research team: The project is “Organisations, staff support and the dynamics and quality of social work practice: A qualitative longitudinal study of child protection work” funded by Economic and Social Research Council.

Professor Harry Ferguson, University of Birmingham
Dr Tarsem Singh Cooner, University of Birmingham
Associate Professor Liz Beddoe, University of Auckland
Dr Jadwiga Leigh, University of Sheffield
Dr Tom Disney University of Northumbria
Dr Lisa Warwick, University of Nottingham

References to works cited in the presentation 

Clinton, B. K., Silverman, B. C., & Brendel, D. H. (2010). Patient-Targeted Googling: The Ethics of Searching Online for Patient Information. Harvard Review of Psychiatry 18(2), 103-112. doi:10.3109/10673221003683861

Kolmes, K., & Taube, D. O. (2014). Seeking and finding our clients on the Internet: Boundary considerations in cyberspace. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(1), 3-10.

Joy, E.  (2017) .Who is looking at you: Social media the new assessment tool.  [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Sage, T. E., & Sage, M. (2016). Social media use in child welfare practice. Advances in Social Work, 17(1), 93-112.

Sage, M., Wells, M., Sage, T., & Devlin, M. (2017). Supervisor and policy roles in social media use as a new technology in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 78, 1-8.

11 replies on “The ethics of using Facebook in child protection practice”

I think it is important to consider whether information has been posted on social media publically or privately. All facebook users have the ability to control whether the information they post is published publically or to a selected private audience on the platform. Users of social media are made aware of this through the terms and conditions and privacy policies of the social media platforms they choose to use. With each post a user makes on facebook they have a choice to make their post public, available only to their facebook ‘friends’ or only to selected people in that ‘friend’ group. If information is published publically online, then the client has chosen to make this information publically available and I don’t see that it is unethical for a social worker to view this and to consider it in making their assessment. If however, information is posted privately and the social worker obtains access to it through some kind of deception – say by creating a fake facebook profile and sending a friend request to a client to be able to view their private profile information – then this is most definitely unethical.
Also important to consider is that social workers make use of private information in assessments already without seeking it out. For example, members of the public will ‘screenshot’ private text or social media conversations and send these photos, unsolicited, to child protection agencies where they are assessed for care and protection concerns by social workers.

Julia, the lines between public and private are blurry and cohort data shows that older groups of people have a different view of it to younger. Having said that, whilst what you are saying about privacy settings is true, there are problems with that take.

Reading the full privacy setting regulations on any social media platform, let alone Facebook, would take hours. For an average person, thats akin to saying “you should read the fine print”. Sure, we all accept that that might be true, but very few people actually ‘read the fine print’. There’s an expectation that there is a ‘fair’ trade. Just like there’s an expectation that you are treated well by a social worker – at least with respect.

Even being able to understand Facebook privacy settings, aside from understanding their terms and conditions is complicated. It takes a degree of education and cognitive functioning that often our most vulnerable citizens may not have. Do we expect only the neurotypical to use Facebook? Are we therefore punishing people with learning disabilities by saying “but it was public”? What about people with conditions such as Alzheimers or Dementia? Even a transitory condition like concussion?

And this is with regard to one type of social media. Understanding the settings of every single social media is asking quite a lot. I mean, for myself, I really understand Facebook, am good on Twitter, but ask me about Instagram, and others, I’m not so sure. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people to have complete control over everything – especially when these platforms are complex and do not make it easily accessible.

With regard to friends and family taking screen shots, that’s substantively different. Thats not a social worker *seeking out* information, that’s a social worker receiving it.

In short, where is the difference between stalking someone online to fish for things, and driving past their house to look at them? There’s really very little difference.

And note, I have no problem with a social worker legitimately checking on a person by using social media because there is a substantiated and specific risk to their safety – that’s ok – it’s when people go on fishing expeditions that’s the worry.

At the moment there are very very few rules and regulations around this. Oranga Tamariki (and agencies in other countries) need to develop rules about this sort of surveillance. Liz is not saying that people shouldn’t be able to use it at all, and neither am I. What we are saying is that there must be checks and balances in place to ensure that when it does happen, it happens for the right reason.

Thanks Eileen, you make a really good point about the degree of education and cognitive functioning required for negotiating the world of social media. I agree that there are generational differences in how these issues are viewed also.

I also agree that there should be better rules and guidance available for social workers in this space. Social media shouldn’t be viewed by social workers purely out of curiosity or to fish for information without a valid reason, as you say. Perhaps if the use of social media is going to be legitimised then some effort needs to be made to make service users aware that the information they post on social media could be used in this way.

I also think that the research into this topic needs to make explicit whether information obtained by social workers was private and obtained through deceptive means or public and obtained with a clear purpose, as they are different situations ethically.

Hi Julia
In the research discussed in the video we found different kinds of use of Facebook. Some involved addressing service user use of Facebook, for example, screenshots of posts sent by family members. But participants did mention use Facebook accounts that were set up to use to check service user pages. We will be discussing this in greater detail when we publish from the research.

I agree with youth secrete info doesn’t belong to us but the reviewed info belongs to us… Therefore, if the informations posted on public platform then there is nothing wrong with us using it, the one who posted had a choice to either make it private or public

Thank you for this insightful presentation.
I work in palliative care and we have clear policies in our workplace about the use of social media.
The only instance when I have used Facebook in my Social Work role is to try to locate family members for a dying patient who is estranged from their family. In one instance I showed the patient a photo of a person who may be a famly member seeking confirmation. We then asked the Salvation Army Family Tracing Service to make contact with the person identified to check if they were a relative and if enquire if they wished to make contact.
I think Social Workers as a body need to have very clear reasons for using Facebook; tracking and monitoring the activities of families has aspects of Big Brother associated with it. That is not the sort of Social Work I would wish to be associated with.

Thanks for your comment. There are lots of benign examples of use of Facebook and other social media for good- e.g tracing people, working with support networks,interacting with young people.
We will be noting that when we write up our research as well.
We’re pleased to be able to stimulate some discussion on this issue.

Hi Julia- Thanks for your comments. The issues are indeed complex. Unfortunately , in my opinion, deception is being used and this raises concerns for us as social workers and researchers. I’m also not entirely sure that the argument about public pages applies here. I might interact with hundreds of people on Facebook but I don’t go looking at their pages. Without an invitation that seems intrusive.
What we hope to do with the presentation is stimulate debate. This practice has run away with very little discussion about the ethics of it. The research suggests that social workers themselves want better guidance.
And to better understand what is happening in this space. We also found that social workers were ‘drawn in ‘ to service users’ Facebook and other social media because other parties- family members, members of the public, other professionals- altered them to problematic posts or sent screenshots.

If care and protection workers have concerns for a child’s safety they are supposed to work collaboratively with the police who can then use Facebook if warranted. By no means should a social worker be using this social media tool to monitor or assess an individual or family. Sadly, having worked for a short period in care and protection, there is largely no social work identity and blurred lines between social work and law enforcement role. Our code of ethics is largely ignored or unheard of by the majority, noted that I worked with one particular social worker who had her swrb registration badge hung from an NZ police branded neck chain. Identity confusion at its best! And a whole office of social workers and managers saw nothing wrong in it. We have a long way to go and I often wonder if child protection work should be deemed separate to social work, I.e a different discipline. Unfortunately that does not account for the minority of good social workers in the Care nd protection system who are overshadowed by child protection workers who know what a S71 is but don’t know what theories underpin their decision making.

Thanks for your comment Tania. I think you’ve made an important point about the police. I know many people share your views that social media surveillance is maybe police work rather than social work. Thanks for contributing to the debate.

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