Featured Articles

Tuesday, January 4

Professional Boundaries in a Virtually Boundary-less E-environment

Kathryn B. Chernack, DSW, LCSW

This article originally appeared in Update, September/October 2010, Vol. 35, No. 1, published by the National Association of Social Workers-New York State Chapter. It is reprinted with permission from NASW-NYS.

Boundaries provide the framework for the social work relationship. The blurring of boundaries can create confusion and misconceptions for the client about our roles and the expectations for the services we provide. The widespread use of technology and its social networking Web sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube, create new avenues for potential boundary violations in social work practice. In the electronic environment, intentional and unintentional virtual contacts between social workers and clients are always possible. As Reamer cautions, “Technology can lead organizations and individual professionals into situations where they cross ethical boundaries or...engage in questionable behavior.” (In Reardon, 2009, p.12).

What are the ethical boundaries with respect to competent social work practice and the use of technology? What ethical principles and standards guide us as we navigate social networking sites in the electronic environment?

The ethical principle pertaining to competence is stated in the NASW Code of Ethics as follows: “Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise” (NASW, 2008, p. 4). This requirement regarding competence extends to technical competence. It is further articulated in the NASW and Association of Social Work Board’s Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. Standard 4 states: “Social workers shall be responsible for becoming proficient in the technological skills and tools required for competent and ethical practice and for seeking training and consultation to stay current with emerging technologies.” (NASW & ASWB, 2005, p. 7)

Staying current in this electronic age is especially challenging given the rapid development of emerging technologies. Five years ago, for instance, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not available to the general public. Today, social workers, as well as the agencies and professional associations they belong to, are part of the hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites (Note: NASW has a Facebook page which allows “Fans” but not “Friends.”).

In general, when using technology in its various forms, social workers need to adhere to ethical, legal, and regulatory standards in areas such as privacy, confidentiality, client records, and informed consent. There are several standards in the Code of Ethics regarding these areas that serve as a guide. The following series of examples highlight the application of ethical standards regarding conflicts of interest and privacy as they specifically relate to boundary issues.
The case example below addresses the question: Is it ethical to use the internet to obtain information on a client for assessment purposes?

A client sought help from “Jenna,” a social worker in private practice, after the tragic death of her husband. Her grief over her loss was magnified by the media coverage that surrounded it. This was a source of anger that she shared with Jenna during her initial phone call. Jenna had not seen any accounts of the death and knew that she could easily access the information online. As part of her pre-engagement preparation, Jenna considered Googling the obituary and the news articles related to the deceased. As a “digital native” Jenna was well-versed in using the Internet. She was not sure however, if seeking information about a client online posed an ethical issue. To guide her in making a decision, she accessed the NASW Code of Ethics electronically, and she consulted with a social work colleague.

In this example, the ethical standard that guided Jenna was Standard 1.07a in the Code of Ethics which pertains to privacy and confidentiality. The standard states: “Social workers should respect clients’ right to privacy. Social workers should not solicit private information from clients unless it is essential to providing services...” (NASW, 2008, p. 6). Jenna and the social work colleague she consulted interpreted the standard to include not using the Internet for investigatory purposes regarding a client. In order to be respectful of her client’s right to privacy and be respectful of her right to disclose information when she was emotionally ready to address it, the social worker spoke with her directly about the situation during their initial session. She learned that the client wanted her to view the news reports and consequently obtained her consent to seek additional information about her and her family from an external source.

The fact that information about clients is available electronically through various search engines does not mean we should access it. The boundaries that define our professional roles do not extend to engaging in detective work about our clients. Seeking information on the Internet about a client without his or her knowledge may violate an implied contract and erode the client’s sense of trust in the social worker.

The next example relates to questions that often confront social workers: What do you do when a client sends you a friend request? Is it ethical to friend a client on Facebook?

Although the word Facebook is not specifically mentioned in the Code of Ethics, there are ethical standards that can guide us in our professional decisions about social networking. Standard 1.06c, which pertains to conflicts of interest, states: “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.” (NASW, 2008, p. 5). Dual or multiple relationships occur when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business. Accepting an invitation to be a friend on Facebook from a client creates a dual relationship. It needs to be declined in a respectful manner just as any other social invitation or invitation outside of the office is declined.

Another ethical standard that has relevance to our use of Facebook and other social networking sites is the standard that pertains to Private Conduct. Standard (4.03) states: “Social workers should not permit their private conduct to interfere with their ability to fulfill their professional responsibilities.” (NASW, 2008, p. 13)

We are all entitled to a private life; however, we need to be especially aware of the ease in which what we believe to be our private postings on Facebook can instantaneously become public. Among the few things to consider: 1. When someone who is not a linked friend views your profile, Facebook shows a list of Friends you have in common. It is possible you and a client may have shared Friends, especially if you live in a small community or share some other group affiliation (Kolmes & Taub, 2010); 2. Although many of the social networking sites permit you to adjust privacy settings, this does prevent other Friends from posting or “tagging” pictures of you; 3. As the worker in the following example learned, you need to know how to select privacy settings in order for them to be of any use.

“Dave” specializes in marital therapy. Late one night after an argument with his wife, he was chatting with a friend on Facebook. He wrote that he was so angry with her that he wanted to “snuff her with a pillow.” A moment later, he received a message from an in-law asking if he realized that he had posted his comment to his wall. His comment, therefore, was available for anyone read.

Dave’s inexperience with navigating the features of this social networking site and his failure to establish appropriate privacy settings created the potential for his clients to follow his personal life and this embarrassing self-disclosure.

As Reamer notes, over-exposure on social networking sites may confuse clients and have negative repercussions for a social worker’s relationships with clients (Reamer, 2009).

Another way for information about a social worker’s private life to be accessible to clients is when pictures of the social worker are uploaded on a social networking site and “tagged” with the person’s name. Consider the following scenario:

“Danielle” is a social worker in a suburban high school who sings with a band in clubs in a nearby city on weekends. She uses a stage name in an effort to separate her personal life from her role as a professional social worker. A student’s parent happened to see her performing one Saturday night. He took some pictures of her performance on his mobile phone in order to show his son. In turn, the student posted the images on his Facebook page which he tagged with the social worker’s name. The pictures depicted Danielle in scantily clad attire—appropriate for the club scene but not for her day job. The social worker returned to school on Monday to learn that most of the students had viewed the images.

In the electronic environment, the potential for blurring the boundaries between our private lives and professional lives is great. The growth of social networking and web-based information creates the possibility of clients searching for and finding professional and personal information (Kolmes & Taub, 2010). Clients can access a wealth of information about us without having to ask. This is now an added dimension to making clinical and ethical decisions regarding self-disclosure. In the pre-electronic environment, when a client asked a personal question, we were taught to respond in ways that reflected the question back to the client (“You seem curious about me. Let’s explore that.” Or “We’re here to talk about you.”). We have been taught to use self-disclosure sparingly and purposefully. As with any form of self-disclosure, personal Internet postings to which clients have access may complicate social workers’ professional relationships (Reamer, 2009).

The following recommendations are aimed at avoiding boundary violations when using technology and social networking sites:

  1. Seek training and consultation for ethical issues regarding the use of technology. Become familiar with the standards in the Code of Ethics and the NASW and ASWB Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice.
  2. Use the highest privacy settings for social networking sites. Create a “lock” on Twitter  accounts in order to deny access to requests to “follow” you.
  3. Manage the information available about you online by creating a professional Web site that describes your credentials and expertise. If the Web site includes a blog, it should not be enabled for reader’s comments in order to avoid issues regarding confidentiality.
  4. Check your online profile by periodically searching your name. View what clients and  potential clients can see about you.
  5. When you contract with clients, include discussion about policies with respect to  social networking, as well as contact through other electronic methods.
  6. Create agency policies regarding ethical practice and the use of technology and social  networking by staff.
  7. When posting on professional Web sites (such as socialworkchat.org) or commenting on a blog, keep it professional as your comments can be viewed by the public and are archived.

In years past before the Internet, being a technologically savvy and ethically responsible social worker meant knowing how to password protect an electronic document and create locked files for floppy discs. These days, in order to ensure competent and ethical practice, we need to adapt our skills to meet the demands of social work in the age of social networking. This challenge includes being especially attentive to boundary issues and privacy-related matters in the electronic environment.

  • Dolgoff, R., Lowenberg, F.M. & Harrington, D. (2008). Technology in direct practice. In Ethical decisions for social work practice (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Schoech, D., McNutt, J.G., Finn, J., et. al. (2008). Technology. In T. Mizrahi & L.E. Davis (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social work. National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press, Inc. E-reference Edition). Retrieved March 28, 2010 from: http:www.oxford-naswsocialwork.com.libproxy.adelphi.edu.
  • Zur, O. (2010). To accept or not to accept? How to respond when clients send "Friend Request" to their psychotherapists or counselors on social networking sites. Retrieved August 20, 2010 from http://www.zurinstitute.com/socialnetworking.html.

Kathryn B. Chernack, DSW, LCSW-R, BCD, is the chairperson of the NASW New York State Chapter Ethics Committee and an appointed member of the committee for approximately twenty years. She is in private practice in Garden City, NY, and works as a consultant for St. Christopher Ottilie (SCO) Family of Services where she is involved in quality improvement and risk management.

Posted on 01/04/11 at 01:57 PM


Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.
  • 01-11-19

    LSW/LCSW Review Course 01.11.19 (DePaul Center)

  • 02-01-19

    February 2019 Chapter Board Leadership Meeting

  • 02-11-19

    Cult. Comp.: Historical Trauma, Systems, and Social Workers (DePaul Center)

  • 03-15-19

    Three Rivers District Cult. Comp. CEU Event (Elgin)

Calendar »

Become a member of NASW today!


Visit the CEU Opportunities page to find free CEU events for NASW Illinois members!

Continuing Edcuation

Consider joining one of our social networking groups.