Modeling Practice: Social Media Guidelines in Social Work Field Education

Last year, I wrote my own profession guidelines  for how I use social media in my professional practice as a social work educator.  This is often referred to as a Professional Social Media Policy, and is a recommended practice from National Association of Social Workers (NASW, n.d.).  Specifically, these guidelines are personal to me, and describe how I strive to interact with students, colleagues and other professionals when using digital and social media.   I include these guidelines in my course syllabi and they guide how I use social media to engage students online, disseminate my research, and network with colleagues.

Allison Curington, MSW

Allison Curington, MSW

These guidelines came about because of a collaborative project with Allison Currington, Director of Field Education at the University of Alabama.  We have been working a toolkit to help social work field educators deal with ethical and practical issues related to the use of social and digital media in field education, focusing on information and tools to help field directors raise awareness with students and field supervisors.  As part of this process, Allison also wrote her own professional social media policy. She then decided to ask the entire staff in the UA Office of Field Education to assess their social media use for their own policies.  In this interview style post, Allison shares her thoughts about how the process worked and the UA Field Staff developed their own professional social media policies.

How did you write your own policy? How did you approach this process?

Navigating the landscape of technology and social media has been quite the challenge in field education. I can remember when MySpace was all the rage as I was beginning my career as a field director. However, there were very few students in our graduate program who participated on social media platforms. Honestly, we were just trying to navigate not having enough cell phone coverage in rural areas at that time! Fast forward 13 years and you have an entirely new landscape. I would have never dreamed as a field director that I would be dealing with a generation of students who use their primary mode of communication with something other than the phone, e-mail, or even snail mail.

I quickly realized that our field education office needed social media guidelines for the students. While our University had excellent social media guidelines, the profession of social work as it relates to our code of ethics demands that we go further. I set out to create just that…guidelines that set parameters yet offer options for a healthy digital presence!

As Laurel and I began our initial discussions of creating a balanced social media guideline, she asked me to consider my own social media policy. She asked me questions like, “Allison, how do you use social media as a professional?; What are your own guidelines with students?; What does your digital presence look like?” Then, she encouraged me to write my on social media guideline and to begin to share that with students. She explained this will clearly define for students your expectations and they will also have a frame of reference when dealing with social media.

My gut response on the inside was ugh…I don’t have time for this…I just need something to keep students and field instructors in line! As I reflected on her request, I thought perhaps I do need to grapple with my own understanding of ethics and social media as it relates to students and field instructors. I was already practicing some of my guidelines but they were not written down and I was not sharing these with students in a systematic way. Then, it occurred to me that if we expect our students to do this type of reflective work in social work practice, I need to model this for students.

Laurel gave me several resources including her own policy.  Other points of consideration for developing my policy were: NASW Code of the Ethics, NASW & ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice, our own UA Social Media Guidelines for Field Education, and Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). In my policy, I addressed several salient points including privacy and confidentiality, boundaries such as “friending” students and the use of search engines, and email. (Allison’s professional social media policy is available at the end of this post.)

Why did you ask your staff to write their own policies?

As I was going through this process, I felt like it was important to ask other members of the field team to write their own policy.  The process of grappling with their understanding and use of technology was important for all of us. In addition, I felt like it was important to see if our policies overlapped or if a member of the team felt differently about students and social media. Fortunately, we were all on the same page. We decided that we could use one policy to communicate to students and field instructors how we would operate as a field office. I want to be clear that this particular policy is more personal, addressing how each of us as individuals use social media with students. It is not the same as our formal guidelines for students in field education.

What have been the results to date?

I think it may be a little too early in our venture with a field office social media policy to tell about specific results. I am not quite sure that we could connect it just to the personal policy because we are doing several other social media activities with students; however, one result and perhaps most important, is that we are clear about how we will relate to students using social media. We are also clear that as with anything labeled technology there is a speedy evolution process that takes place; we are committed to re-evaluating our policy yearly so that we are addressing new demands as well as new and exciting opportunities!

How did the UA Field Office Staff respond to writing their own professional social media policy?

Because most of them were new to the field education, their initial thoughts were that it was time to address it.  Working with students in agencies opened their eyes to the need for guidelines and boundaries regarding social media, and how better to model that than through our own statements.  Because several of them do not use many forms of social media, certainly not to extent possible, they all felt the need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of social media and how it related to professional ethics and responsibilities. Shayla Smith, our BSW Field Coordinator, said that since “online social networking is an important way that the millennial generation engages in communication, I would be amiss as an instructor to not challenge myself to be able to address, teach, or even model how to incorporate ethical principles and policies.”

Most of the staff said approaching the task was relatively easy.  “Laurel made the process easier and our office was able to use her experience to capture our policies,” reported Kimberly Gibson, one of our MSW Field Coordinator.  They are said that having example guidelines from us (Laurel and Allison) made the creation of their individual social media policies efficient.  Thinking about the format and expectations for each of their policies helped them to articulate our ideas regarding expectations for students.

One of the most important things they learned from creating these policies was being able to provide boundaries regarding social media usage with students.  Creating an inventory of their own social media use helped them to reflect on how much time they spent on social media, how they utilized those social media, and if they could be more effective in their use.  As Carrie Turner, our other MSW Field Coordinator, said, “Being able to model appropriate social media presences is important in our roles as field coordinators.”

Allison Curington’s Social Media Guidelines

The social media policy refers to the use of online sites including, but not limited to: Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Photosharing, Snapchat, Instagram, Blogs, SMS/texting, and other websites. Digital and social media are valuable tools as practitioners and educators; however, they can also present challenges such as dual relationships and conflict of interest. In hopes to decrease challenges, I have developed my own social media guidelines.

In considering the salient points in this document I relied on the following resources to guide me:

Privacy and confidentiality:

  • I will ask permission to post content (pictures, images, video, text) of students, agency constituents, and colleagues on any social media platform.
  • I will follow FERPA and institutional policies to protect the privacy of students’ educational records by not revealing information about grades, course enrollments, class schedules, etc. on any social media platform or through electronic communications.

Boundaries:

  • Friending: I do not accept friend requests from students on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram that I use for socializing.  I will accept friend requests from students on LinkedIn, my professional social media account.
  • Use of Search Engines: It is NOT a regular part of my practice to search for students on Google or Facebook or other search engines. However, many of our agencies do search on these sites for student information prior to field placement interview. If an agency, student, or colleague reports content concerns on social media, I will search. These situations do not occur frequently. However, please keep in mind that when this type of circumstance arises, I will fully document it and discuss in a field staffing with student.

E-mail:

  • I will use your University e-mail to contact you.
  • I will respond within 24 -48 hours, between the times of 7 AM and 7 PM CST.
  • If you do not receive a response from me during this time frame please e-mail again.

References for the post:

National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). 8 Social Media and Technology Tips for Social      Workers – Ethics 8 Series – Ethics Resources and Professional Literature. Retrieved   from             https://www.socialworkers.org/nasw/ethics/ethics8series/social_media.asp?back=yes

 

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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