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Eye on Ethics

Novel Boundary Challenges: Social Networking
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
November 13, 2009

In one week, I received three telephone queries from colleagues across the United States who are wrestling with somewhat similar and very challenging boundary issues. These calls are a sign of the times and provide an important reminder that social workers must be vigilant in their efforts to recognize and manage emerging and novel ethical challenges.

Each social worker who contacted me posed a similar question: Could I help them think through some difficult boundary challenges they had encountered involving social workers’ use of social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace? Their tales each differed slightly but still involved complicated ethical issues that stemmed from social workers’ personal use of social networking sites.

One caller, a social work supervisor, explained in exasperation that numerous social workers employed by her agency communicated with each other through Facebook. According to the caller, several of the social workers posted “mean-spirited” and “derogatory” comments about other agency staffers. Apparently these social workers assumed that they had selected privacy settings on the electronic networking site that would prevent general access to their comments. They did not realize that a couple of the network participants had not set their privacy settings properly and that several of their unprofessional comments—which appeared to violate the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics standards concerning treating colleagues with respect—are now circulating among many agency staffers. The unfortunate situation has created a great deal of tension at the agency, and the supervisor is considering taking disciplinary action against the networking participants.

A second caller described a different set of circumstances. This social worker explained he had just discovered that one of his clients had visited the social worker’s wife’s social networking site. Coincidentally, the social worker’s client and the social worker’s wife were high school classmates nearly 20 years ago and, using the networking site’s features, rediscovered each other electronically. Neither person was aware of the other’s relationship to the social worker. When the client visited his former classmate’s networking site, he saw many casual photos of the social worker and learned many personal details about the family. The social worker felt overexposed. And, to complicate matters, the social worker learned for the first time that his wife and client had been lovers during their high school years. The social worker was certain he could not continue to provide clinical services to his client, in light of the dual relationship, but was unsure about how to terminate this relationship ethically.

The third social worker raised yet another ethical issue involving electronic networking. This social worker, who is a private practitioner, told me that earlier in the year she created a Facebook page. She told me that she now realizes she did not fully understand how to control her privacy settings. This social worker explained that for nearly two years, she has provided counseling services to a client who struggles with anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Reportedly the client became obsessed with the social worker and was determined to find out information about the social worker’s personal life. The client searched for the social worker on Facebook and found the social worker’s site. Unbeknown to the social worker, the client was able to view a number of the social worker’s personal photos on the Web site and other postings that were of a personal nature. The client left disturbing voice mail messages for the social worker that made explicit references to information on the social worker’s Facebook page. The social worker told me that she felt as if this electronic incursion had severely compromised her clinical relationship with her client.

The New Normal
Throughout the profession’s history, social workers have always needed to update ethical standards in response to new developments and changing circumstances in the profession and the broader society. For example, the emergence of HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s required social workers to think differently about circumstances that warrant disclosure of confidential information, without a client’s consent, in order to protect a third party from harm. Traditional duty-to-protect guidelines, developed years before HIV and AIDS emerged, were no longer sufficient. Similarly, the invention of the Internet and e-mail created previously unknown ethical issues for social workers. Using this new technology, some social workers began to provide online clinical services to clients without ever meeting them in person. These then-new electronic communication options forced the profession to develop new ethical standards related to informed consent, confidentiality, and client protection.

The relatively recent advent of electronic social networking sites has created yet another ethical challenge in social work and an opportunity to develop ethical guidelines designed to protect clients, as well as practitioners. The two most relevant ethics concepts are boundaries and privacy.

Boundaries in an Electronic Age
In recent years, social workers have developed a much richer and nuanced appreciation of boundary issues and dual relationships. The profession’s literature now includes in-depth discussions of issues related to, for example, social workers’ social relationships and friendships with former clients, encounters with clients in small and rural communities, self-disclosure, hiring former clients, and managing gifts and invitations that practitioners receive from clients. Only recently, however, have social workers explored the complex boundary implications created by electronic social networking sites. In effect, social workers’ postings on social networking sites may constitute an inadvertent form of self-disclosure to clients and colleagues who explore these sites.

As with any form of self-disclosure, personal Internet postings to which clients and others have access may complicate social workers’ professional relationships. Clients who learn personal details about social workers’ lives may experience complex and counterproductive transference. For instance, a client who is in recovery from alcohol abuse may be confused upon seeing photos of her social worker drinking alcohol at a lively party and reading the social worker’s commentary about various escapades during the party. A client who has fantasies about developing a social relationship with his social worker may have strong feelings about seeing photos of the social worker in a bathing suit taken during the social worker’s recent vacation.

Social workers who consider maintaining a social networking site should pay close attention to standards in the Code of Ethics concerning boundaries and dual relationships (section 1.07). According to the code, “Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client” [standard 1.07(c)].

Electronic Privacy
Social workers’ electronic social networking sites also pose several privacy challenges. Social workers who do not create adequate privacy protections run the risk of inadvertent and potentially embarrassing self-disclosure. This over-exposure may confuse clients and have negative repercussions for social workers’ relationships with clients.

Also, social workers who use social networking sites to discuss work-related controversies or to gossip or complain about colleagues may expose themselves to allegations of unprofessional behavior. Such inappropriate Internet postings can jeopardize social workers’ careers and trigger allegations that they defamed colleagues’ character. In this regard, practitioners should be mindful of the Code of Ethics admonition that “social workers should treat colleagues with respect” [standard 2.01(a)] and “avoid unwarranted criticism of colleagues in communications with clients or with other professionals. Unwarranted negative criticism may include demeaning comments that refer to colleagues’ level of competence” [standard 2.01(b)].

The recent calls I received from distressed colleagues provide yet another critical reminder of what social workers should always remember: Ethical challenges in the profession evolve and change over time. Social workers must always be vigilant.

 — Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.