Viewing Facebook in social work: An (un)ethical practice?

In 2018 we published a guest blog by Eileen Joy about the growing use of viewing Facebook to gain information about individuals and families.  We were interested to start some discussion about the ethical issues in social media use in social work.  Our review of literature and codes of ethics/ conduct didn’t provide us with much help. Eileen commented :

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.

We later published a post about some emerging information about this practice in child and family social work in England. Tarsem Singh Cooner and colleagues presented a video about our research findings at the Social Work and Social Development conference in Dublin, July 2018: Facebook: An unethical practice or an effective tool in child protection. View the video here.

In October Tarsem Singh Cooner, Liz Beddoe, Harry Ferguson and Eileen Joy published a full article in the Journal of Technology in Human Services reporting  findings on social workers’ use of Facebook  in child and family social work in England.  We found that Facebook use took multiple forms. Some social workers actively searched service users’ Facebook pages while others opposed any such usage, considering it to be unethical. We also identified a third group who were unwillingly “drawn into” engaging with Facebook sourced information shown to them by other parties. Our response based on these findings is that social work should pause to consider the implications of these practices. Read full article here.  

We wrote the article with the intention of opening up discussion around the use of social media as a possible resource in child protection. Some key points from our conclusions:

  • The profession needs to protect service users from unthinking, unethical, and potentially illegal social media use
  • Social media seems to be driven in practice by managers’ participation and role modelling (Sage et al., 2017) and it is thus important to avoid policy and discussion happening away from day to day social work- further work must involve all stakeholders
  • The use of social media in this manner requires leadership for working with digital technology (Mearns et al. 2015)
  • Technology in social work is dominated by managerialist discourses and what is needed is the will to help frontline practitioners and the families they work with to navigate complex decision-making. (Tregeagle & Darcy, 2007)
  • There are likely to be times in child protection work when some social workers will feel it is appropriate to check service users’ social media accounts but these should be rare and subject to discussion first.
  • We find the use of fake accounts to gain unchecked access to people’s lives unacceptable because this may infringe legal rights in some jurisdictions, and ethical guidance in others.
  • The rights of practitioners to choose not include social media in their day to day practice must also be protected.
  • There are important implications in relation to pre- and post-qualifying education in preparing social workers and managers to operate in a socially networked society.

What are the questions we need to ask ourselves when considering whether or not to conduct a social media search on Facebook for our clients? Eileen’s questions from 2018 are still relevant:

  • If social work is founded upon human rights and social justice, what does it mean that we are considering or conducting these searches  without consent or in a manner that lacks transparency ?
  • How else might we get this information without informing the client that we are doing so, and would that behaviour be deemed illegal or inappropriate? For example physical stalking, covert surveillance.
  • How does this kind of surveillance impact on the working  alliance and trust we have with service users?
  • How  do we use the information we find ? Do we document it, and how?
  • How reliable is the information that we might find on social media?

In a future post we will consider what guidance is offered social workers in Aotearoa by the SWRB Code of Conduct. In the meantime we recommend social workers read the relevant code for their country prior to conducting any searches, whether or not  a Facebook page is public or protected.


Cooner, T. S., Beddoe, L., Ferguson, H., & Joy, E. (2019). The use of Facebook in social work practice with children and families: exploring complexity in an emerging practice. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 1-22. doi:10.1080/15228835.2019.1680335 Open access here.

Mearns, G. W.Richardson, R., & Robson, L. (2015). Enacting the internet and social media on the public sector’s frontline. New Technology, Work and Employment30(3), 190208. doi:10.1111/ntwe

Sage, M.Wells, M.Sage, T., & Devlin, M. (2017). Supervisor and policy roles in social media use as a new technology in child welfareChildren and Youth Services Review7818. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.04.018

Tregeagle, S., & Darcy, M. (2007). Child welfare and information and communication technology: Today’s challengeBritish Journal of Social Work38(8), 14811498. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm048

2 replies on “Viewing Facebook in social work: An (un)ethical practice?”

Informed consent is a key feature for me in this debate. If someone posts something publicly it is available for public, so they gave an informed consent to make it public.
The other part is a social worker’s conduct – do you feel comfortable stalking your clients through social media which equates to stalking in public – is this actually your job?
Same counts for employers.

Hi Ksenija
Thanks for your comment. Take a look at my post on what the professional bodies say about this. Just published this morning.
I don’t agree about public aspect of it. Firstly it assumes that everyone has the skills to set their privacy settings, which can be complicated and often the social media companies change the rules. Also we wouldn’t go into a client’s house uninvited even if their door was open.
I do agree about using Facebook for surveillance being like stalking. I think we should leave that to policing not really social work. However people in Aotearoa are dong it. Hence my second post this morning where I have summarised what SWRB says of relevance.

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