A new study looking at the way social workers in England use social media to observe parents and children has concluded that covert surveillance is rife among social workers engaging with families.

The study, which was published in September, by academics at the University of Birmingham, England and the University of Auckland in New Zealand, also noted that the proper use of social media within a social work context was largely unknown due in part to confusion around what kinds of investigative powers were available for child welfare professionals.

But a piece by The Times in March confirmed that some British social workers were breaking the law by covertly surveying and accessing private information about service users through platforms like Facebook. The Times referenced a government-funded study also produced by the University of Birmingham which found social workers had used fake profiles to “friend” parents in cases where their posts were not publicly viewable, which is in direct violation of the law. Social workers even watched parents’ relationships and behaviours online to monitor domestic violence and substance abuse.

A research paper from 2017 noted similar patterns among American social workers, with over half of those polled saying it was permissible to search for a client on Facebook.

The new research suggests that social workers using Facebook are set into three categories: those who actively use the platform to spy on families, those adamantly opposed to the practice (through either an inability to use social media or a moral standpoint citing user privacy) and social workers reluctantly drawn into usage by service managers sharing content with them.

The report calls for more clarity on social media use by family professionals, but this call is not the first.

This site originally made the call in 2017, which prompted the President of the Family Division at the time to issue guidelines. Those guidelines were produced by social work regulation body, the Health & Care Professions Council.

However, the published guidance for social workers was limited in scope and did not offer a robust breakdown of the law and what social workers could and could not do in relation to social media searches.

An earlier piece of guidance was issued in 2012 by the British Association of Social Workers, which was also too limited in scope and content.

There is a need for an organisation like the The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to produce a definitive guide setting out human rights and legal privacy boundaries, as well as proper ethical processes for any social worker thinking about accessing service users’ social media content.

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