Connected and/or Protected? Exploring digital boundaries in social work

Good morning SocialWork@Sussex blog readers! It seems that summer has finally arrived (in London and the South East at least) and what a beautiful morning for a post on digital boundaries in social work. The topic of social media and new technologies and their impact on social work, is a recurring theme on this blog as well as in our offline conversations. On June 5 colleagues, Denise Turner and Lel Meleyal will be running what promises to be a super interesting event on the challenges and opportunities that social media offers social work education, research and practice. We start our week with a post from Denise and Lel explaining the background to their event and giving us a sneak preview of speakers and topics. Details of how to join the ‘Connected and/or Protected’ event, either in person or online, can be found at the end of this post.

We are both Lecturers in Social Work, interested in boundaries, spaces and places – physical, psychological and professional. In lively discussions between us we recognised both dissonance and resonance in our respective positions towards social networking, particularly the challenges and opportunities this invites. This event arose partly from these discussions and we hope it will act as a springboard for further debate amongst students, service users, faculty and practitioners involved with social work. We also plan some original research focusing on boundaries within social networking activity and we would like this event to generate interest in participation. Within this blog piece we have used a conversational style to reflect the discussions which gave rise to this event:

Lel: Some time ago a social work student* invited student colleagues and tutors to view a blog piece she had written. Her public blog was about her journey as a survivor of the mental health system. It was a powerful, articulate piece – she wrote poetically and the points she made were those of the silenced. I have rarely read anything which made experiences so vivid and accessible to those of us who need to hear. It was a profoundly generous piece of writing. Nevertheless, as I read, anxiety mounted with every word. The detail of her personal and difficult journey was painfully graphic. Discussion and photographs let me into her world – then and since – including photographs of her home and family life. Despite the beautiful word-crafting of her blog piece the questions that leapt into my mind were ‘do you want service users to know these things about you?’, ‘do you want defense barristers and professional to know these things about you?’ In allowing us generous access to the difficulties of her life to enable and facilitate our learning about mental health, she had exposed herself and her family. I asked her these questions and she responded with horrified alarm ‘I hadn’t thought it through’.

At around the same time I was a member of conduct panels for two regulatory bodies – social workers and teachers. Sadly, on too many occasions I saw examples of professionals behaving inappropriately in digital spaces – those involving social media in particular.

Perhaps it is not surprising that I had developed rather a negative and restrictive view of the relationship between social media and professionalism. Boundary transgressions/incaution seemed all too easy. I advised students to proceed with caution and check privacy settings carefully. It seemed (and still does) clear to me, that managing professional boundaries in digital spaces is an essential professional skill.

I was intrigued to hear Denise’s different, and less defensive, take on social media. ‘Twitter is great’ she said. ‘It’s a fantastic resource to social workers’.

Denise: I have written previously for this blog and in a forthcoming book** about my conversion from Luddite to Twitter enthusiast. I use Twitter purely for professional purposes and my experience of this has been almost exclusively positive to date. Through the contacts established on Twitter , I have been invited to participate in a number of exciting projects including a keynote speech at JSWEC, where perhaps most excitingly of all I was dubbed ‘inspirational’ by Harry Ferguson, an academic whose work I have long admired. My often enthusiastic advocacy of the professional benefits of Twitter, however does not mean that I’m starry eyed or naive about the challenges it presents.

Most new inventions carry with them possibilities for good, alongside the potential for harm. The invention of photography, for example has made it possible to carry images of loved ones into perpetuity, whilst also creating the opportunity to post humiliating and injurious images onto social networking sites. It is not the invention itself, but rather the people involved in using it who create both the harm and the good from the technological advances available to us. These are matters which strike at the heart of the human condition – people have been both harming and healing each other for centuries.

Having been a social worker myself, I am a firm advocate for professional boundaries which create clarity and help protect service users and practitioners alike. However, social work is also a profession which often engages directly with the reduction of boundaries – with advancing understanding; reducing oppression; empowering and creating opportunity and therefore my hope is that boundaries can be kept permeable, rather than becoming rigid barriers which promote mistrust between people and promote process instead of compassion.

Despite the undoubted dilemmas it creates, social media is one way of creating such permeability, by allowing access between people who would not otherwise meet – often to very positive effect, as many of the campaigning hashtags have proved. However, there is also no that doubt that the sometimes dizzying speed of technological advance presents social work with important new challenges. What is certain is that the genie is now out of the bottle, and whether it is Twitter or whatever supersedes it, there is a need for social work to engage with debates around social networking and not to turn away.

* With thanks to LJ who gave me permission to tell this story

** Social Media in Social Work Education (2014) J. Westwood (Ed) Critical Publishing

Lel and Denise (in unison!) : The event, ‘Connected and/or Protected? Exploring digital boundaries in social work’  will provide the opportunity to engage in some of these key debates around social media through the perspectives of three very different Speakers :

Alfie Deyes

Alfie is a vlogger who runs YouTube channel PointlessBlog which has over two million subscribers and over

82 million views. He was named as one of the key figures of ‘Generation YouTube’ by Company magazine in 2013, and is

one of 12 ‘web savvy entrepreneurs’ identified by Yahoo News in 2013.

Jim Rogers

Jim is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Lincoln.

He is programme leader for post-qualifying professional programmes for Approved Mental Health Professionals and Best

Interests Assesors, and has teaching responsibilities for a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Jim is co-author of ‘Social Work in a Digital Society’ (2013).

Brian James

Brian is Head of Assurance and Development within the Fitness to Practise department of the Health and Care

Professions Council. The HCPC keeps a register for 16 different health and care professions and only registers

people who meet the standards it sets for their training, professional skills, behaviour and health.

Brian has a key interest in public protection.

The event will bring together students, faculty, practitioners and service users interested in social media within social work, to extend the threads of exciting discussions still in the making. Following the event, we will be establishing a Social Media Special Interest Group for the Department of Social Work at Sussex and we invite interest in this from those attending the event. Further we are planning research focusing on student social workers navigation of digital space and professional identity and also welcome expressions of interest in participation.

We warmly invite you to attend and look forward to hearing your views.

Attendance at the event qualifies you for a digital ‘Open Badge.’ These are becoming increasingly popular and are used by organisations like NASA as a form of CV building. When added to a ‘digital backpack’ Open Badges provide a record of events, training and conferences attended and achievements accomplished, as a means of building a career profile.

To book a place at this event, email h.stanley[at]

Live, remote participation available:

Lel Meleyal:@LFMeleyal & Denise Turner; @DeniseT01, Lecturers in Social Work and Event Organisers.


May 19, 2014. New media & new technology. 3 comments.

Do I get a badge?

Following the appeal we made at Sussex World Social Work Day 2014  for more social workers to be involved in public conversations about what social work is and does, three students have volunteered to be involved with our public engagement activities.  A few weeks ago we heard from undergraduate social work student Maristelle Preece, today we hear from doctoral student and experienced social work practitioner Rachel Larkin.  Rachel’s research interests are on social work with asylum seeking and trafficked young women. Below she reflects on 20 years of being a social worker and the reasons she’s stuck with it. 

Looking through my diary this month, I suddenly realised that I’ve been working as a Social Worker for 20 years. I’d spent the last hour trying to reach an agreement with a very angry parent. My head hurt and I was frustrated and tired. Yet it didn’t cross my mind to ask why I was still doing this job and, driving back to the office, I started thinking about the reasons I was still here.

I graduated from the MSW at Sussex in 1994 and am back here part-time in 2014, studying for a Doctorate in Social Work. Since 1994 I have worked in many different teams, as a Manager and a Social Worker. So why, despite the long hours, the media criticism and the shifting resources, have I never really considered leaving the profession? The answer is very simple: it’s the people.

Here are just a few:

–    the parents with learning disabilities, who many people said would never be able to safely parent their baby girl. They went home with her and she starts school this year.

–    the girl who was sold by her mother to pay the rent at the end of each month, who starts University in September

–    the colleague who took two neglected children to an emergency placement late at night, and then went shopping to get them the fish fingers and spaghetti hoops they’d been asking for all the way there.

–    the little boy with cancer I said goodbye to in the hospice

–    the young man with autism, who told us jokes all the way through his review meeting and made his Headteacher laugh so much she spat her tea out

There are so many more. I’m not trying to be sentimental or pretend that they’re aren’t tough times. Not every story has a happy ending and sometimes we arrive too late or just don’t get it right. Social work is a job that demands personal strength that is sometimes difficult to find. I have seen and heard things I won’t easily forget. Coming back to University is making me think again about some of our practice and it’s not always a comfortable process.

The successes are hard won in Social Work but that just makes them all the sweeter. Of course most of them aren’t our successes at all, but belong with the families themselves. It’s such a good feeling to see a young person take a step forwards.Sometimes they surprise us all and take a giant leap.

I don’t think I had any idea what was in store for me when I graduated in 1994, and it’s been a bumpy ride, but I can honestly say I don’t regret it. If the next 20 years are half as interesting I will count myself lucky.

Is the badge in the post do you think?

May 16, 2014. Social work practice. Leave a comment.

Reflecting on multiple roles

Following the success of Sussex World Social Work Day 2014 and our appeal for more social workers to be involved in public conversations about what social work is and does, a small number of our students came forward to be involved with our public engagement activities, including Maristelle Preece who contributes her first post below. Maristelle is a second year undergraduate student who wanted to write about student experiences on placement as a way of creating a community of practice for placement students that might be supportive of learning and reflection away from the university.

Up at 6.30am, it’s time to start my day as a professional, when only last night I had been socialising with fellow students.

Placement requires us to identify and behave as professionals, and to adjust from the role of student to practitioner every day.

My weeks consist of constant adaption of roles and responsibilities – University essays and CAF assessments, wanting to stay up with friends but having to wake early, friendships and professional relationships, and university days and training days.

At first, I found it difficult adjusting and making the transition between these roles daily, but this was made easier through my hour long journey to and from placement every day.

My drive to work has become my way of preparing myself for the responsibility and anxiety surrounding new tasks and new things to learn. Whilst my drive home has become my way of making the transition from professional back to student, and gives me time to de-stress and reflect.

This reflection is an integral part of developing personally and professionally, which was learnt in one of our first year modules, IPLD. Admittedly, I was apprehensive about the use of this skill when in practice, but I have found it an essential thing to undertake to organise my thoughts and reactions to my experiences on placement.

Now, in week 11 of second year at university, making the transitions between the student and professional roles isn’t so daunting, as I am now noticing my growth as a professional.

But soon, this juggling of roles will not be necessary, as in just over a year, I will be leaving this student role behind as I embark on my career in Social Work!

May 7, 2014. Social work education, Social work practice. Leave a comment.