Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

In January 2018, NHS digital published a report, which highlighted the accessibility and availability of digital platforms to help social workers with their job role. The research, which was compiled from survey data, sought to understand not only how social work could be supported through the use of IT and digital platforms, but also to assess the current level of usage and understanding of digital technologies among the current workforce. While more than half of survey respondents said they had access to a smart phone as part of their role, far fewer were actually able to access case notes and other necessary documents digitally from outside the office.

The survey found there was an appetite for greater and better use of digital media in day-to-day work, which practitioners felt would not only improve their ability to work more flexibly but could also be used to forge better relationships with people who use services. In some instances, respondents to the survey felt improved use of digital media may provide a way to communicate more effectively with those who had previously been unwilling to engage, particularly in relation to social work with young people. The research found that digital technology was used in a range of ways to build and manage positive relationships, particularly with service users, including:

  • communicating with them to gather specific data (as part of assessment);
  • delivering interventions (such as self-guided therapy or telecare); and
  • supporting team work (peer support and online supervision)

Questions around the use of social media

Earlier research around the use of digital media in social care more generally found that it is used in a variety of capacities, such as storing and maintaining records, communications and day-to-day tasks such as booking appointments and scheduling in visits. However, the use of digital technologies by social workers can at times extend beyond simply maintaining records and scheduling visits. Many felt that while digital media in some ways makes their job easier, in other ways it can add to the stress of an already difficult job role.

A lot of the anxiety concerning digital technologies centres around social media. In the most positive of ways, it can be a core platform to allow service users to communicate, and make the social work team appear more accessible to people who may feel uneasy communicating in more formal ways. However, significant challenges around ethics and practice remain. Repeated instances of social workers being reprimanded have made some social workers wary of using social media platforms. In September 2017 HCPC published guidance which encourages practitioners to continue to use social media, but to seek advice and help if they are ever unsure. The guidance suggested that social media, if used responsibly, could support professionals to raise the profile of the profession and network with others nationally and internationally.

Supporting confidentiality and security

For many social workers and social work supervisors many of the challenges around using digital media centre on the necessity for confidentiality and security of information. While much of social work practice within offices is digitised with regard to record and case file keeping and report writing, security issues concerning remote access to files is one of the major challenges. In many cases until digital security can be assured, it will be difficult for social workers to work fully remotely and flexibly without some travel back to the office. GDPR also raises some interesting questions for the profession with regards to storing and accessing data.

An opportunity to improve information sharing and partnership working

It is well recognised that the use of digital media provides an opportunity to improve efficiency and partnership working within social work. If used effectively and supported well, it can allow information to be stored, shared and accessed across a range of different services, which can be particularly useful for increased health and social care integration. However, challenges in practice remain – including the ability of social workers to remotely access notes and information, the need to align working and IT systems, and the ability to access and read data in a number of formats across a number of devices. Research stresses the importance of risk management and appropriate training for staff so that they feel comfortable and confident using media platforms.

A welcome change in the profession?

For many within the profession, the rise of digital platforms as a way to engage with service users and provide increased support and flexibility for social workers themselves has been a positive development. It is a great leveller and can encourage service users who feel comfortable to engage in a much more transparent way with social workers. However, NHS Digital research shows that there are still significant challenges. Overcoming these to successfully integrate digital platforms and interfaces into social work practice has the potential to revolutionise not only how social workers engage with service users, but how they themselves conduct their work. Improved collaboration with other services, increased flexibility, and increased capacity for completing and recording continuing professional development and training to improve practice are just some of the potential fruits of social work’s digital revolution.


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