BLOG: What are the implications of social media abuse and harassment for child protection workers?
Blogpost by Kenneth Burns, collaborative partner at DIPA and senior lecturer at University College Cork.
Child protection and social media
There are a myriad positive uses of social media and online platforms to enhance our personal and community relationships, to foster civic and political engagement, and to access and contribute to knowledge formation. However, individuals, communities and governments are also becoming increasingly aware of the darker side of social media usage such as abusive engagements, stalking, harassment and defamation. Governments have come under pressure to regulate these platforms and to extend protections that apply to real-life engagements (for example, domestic abuse protections, defamation law, stalking protections, etc.) to the digital sphere to protect against doxing, harassment, trolling and cyberbullying. Academics, experts by experience and practitioners in child protection have increasingly been thinking about the impact of social media and online usage on practice.
On a daily basis, there are ongoing debates in front-line practice about how traditional practice themes such as boundaries, sharing information, making contact outside of work hours, collecting data for assessments, relationship-building, and the skilful use of authority (see Ferguson, 2011), manifest in online and digital spaces. There is a growing literature on these practice issues: see, for example, Singh Cooner et al. (2019) on how child protection workers use Facebook as part of child protection assessments. However, the focus of this blog examines how social media and online platforms are used to abuse or harass child protection workers.
What can you do if you are the subject of social media abuse and harassment?
The extent to which child protection and welfare workers are subjected to social media abuse and harassment is unknown and there is a need for research. However, anecdotal accounts and conversations with child protection practitioners and managers in Ireland, and academic staff in other countries, identify this to be a developing practice issue. Child protection workers are experiencing issues similar to other professionals, politicians, sports stars, and public figures.
As part of informal consultations with front-line child protection and welfare workers for the development of a new resource to support social work practitioners on this topic (Burns et al., 2021), we heard about:
- Workers receiving threatening messages (direct or oblique) through their personal social media accounts.
- Workers being stalked through their personal social media accounts.
- Posting of personal information and documents on social media about the worker’s personal life, including information on the location of their home, the identity of their children and the location of the children’s school.
- Family photos are being reshared online and in real-life with commentaries.
- Complaints are being made about the worker and/or the agency.
- Information is being shared about foster parents / carers, and child protection cases which could be in breach of the law (for example, the in camera rule to protect the identity of children in state care).
- Oblique or direct threats to the worker and/or members of their family using social media and online platforms.
- Sharing of recordings of practice interactions online without the worker’s consent.
Child protection and welfare workers are particularly susceptible given the nature of the work where there are notable power differentials. Decisions can have far-reaching implications for families, which can lead to conflict. Individuals or groups can be upset and ventilate about these decisions, they can seek to put pressure through social media on workers to achieve a particular outcome, or a person may ‘retaliate’ as a result of the often sensitive and difficult decisions made by child protection professionals or agencies.
Thinking about why someone might express themselves in a particular way may help to understand their behaviour and may lead to positive engagement and constructive, if critical, exchanges. While a social media post may be experienced by a professional as hurtful, it doesn’t mean that it reaches a threshold where it can be removed or is actionable in court. In many ways, laws and agency policies have yet to be updated and reformed to address the real-life experiences of those who are abused and harassed online.
Responding to social media abuse and harassment
When social media and online posts and engagements reach a threshold where they are abusive, harassing, or harmful, it is essential that workers, mangers and agencies have strategies to respond. As this is a relatively new and evolving issue, managers and workers are learning on the job about how to respond. Some practitioners have advised that responses have been somewhat similar to how agencies and professionals respond to intimidation, threats, and abuse in real life through, advocacy, safety planning, police responses, supervision, communication, boundary setting and the use of professional skills. However, social media and online abuse and harassment can add additional dimensions that requires agencies and professionals to respond in different ways.
The extent to which child protection and welfare workers are subjected to social media abuse and harassment is unknown and there is a need for research.
– Kenneth Burns
Clearly, child protection and welfare employers have a responsibility to protect staff and to provide work environments that are safe. However, professionals and agencies must also be open to fair and critical commentary, however this is received. It is important that freedom of speech is protected, and professionals and agencies already have existing mechanisms to respond to such critical feedback. However, should this extend to an absolutist position where anyone can say anything on any forum? Depending on your country-specific laws and constitution, there are different approaches to freedom of speech and professional accountability. Recent legal cases have demonstrated that citizens can be held accountable for what they post, or even repost, online (see, for example, Hammond, 2019; Hutton, 2021).
The following reflective questions can assist child protection workers and managers to process social media posts, online comments and behaviours:
- “What and whom are you concerned about?
- Clarify & list your concern(s) (include frequency + assessment of severity).
- Who is impacted?
- What are the implications?
- What is in the best interests of service users?
- Is there a justifiable reason why the person is upset, even if how they express this upset on social media is causing you distress?
- How might this issue impact your work with a family / community / group / individual / colleague?
- How might the social media poster’s own experiences of trauma and the pressures associated with an intervention, influence their online behaviours?
- How might cultural and age differences about sharing information on social media be influencing your assessment?” (Burns et al., 2021, p. 5).
We provide detailed advice in our practice resources (Burns et al., 2021; Burns and Ó Súilleabháin, 2021) on how organisations, managers and professionals can respond. Some summary pointers:
- Organisations need to have a clear social media policy which addresses the online abuse and harassment of workers, including a clear internal and external reporting policy.
- Organisations should provide continuing and professional development opportunities for professionals / teams to think through responses to these issues when they arise.
- Organisations should take a proactive stance, in consultation with workers, to report concerning posts to social media companies, engage police when safety concerns exist when threats are made, and to provide access to legal resources should they be required to protect a staff member.
- Team managers have a crucial role in listening, validating the worker’s experience, processing the nature of their concerns, undertaking risk assessments, and advocating on behalf of the worker, both internally in the organisation and externally, where required.
- Team managers and workers need to routinely discuss and consider how to improve their e-professionalism and update their ICT and social media skills (see British Association of Social Workers, 2018). This should be a core part of the induction process for new workers (agency policies, team journal clubs and continuing professional development seminars).
Detailed advice, links to resources and technical advice is provided in our online resource (see below). Social media is not real life; however, what happens on social media can have real-life implications. This is especially true for child protection and welfare workers who work with vulnerable children, young people and families. There is much to learn about this space and there is a clear need for research to: 1) understand the experiences of all involved, and 2) to produce intervention strategies that will be of benefit to practitioners and managers in child protection and welfare.
Child protection and welfare workers are particularly susceptible to social media abuse and harassment, given the nature of the work where there are notable power differentials.
– Kenneth Burns
We must be careful not to responsibilise this issue by placing the onus for change only on the worker – for example: ‘workers just need to change their security settings’. This is a societal issue: constructive responses and the examination of safety concerns will involve critical reflections on the nature of free speech, government regulation (or not) of social media platforms, policy and law development, and critical debate on norms associated with healthy and appropriate social media use and engagements, without blunting valuable critical voices.
This blog is informed by the work of the Online Social Work Practice Initiative at University College Cork, Ireland and a new practice tool on ‘Social media abuse, online harassment and social work’ (see below).
Resources and further reading
British Association of Social Workers (2018) Social Media Policy, available from: https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/basws-social-media-policy
Burns, K., Ó Súilleabháin, F., Cuskelly, K. & Kelleher, P. (2021) ‘Social media abuse, online harassment and social work’, Online Social Work Practice Initiative, University College Cork, available from: https://www.ucc.ie/en/appsoc/aboutus/activities/oswp/oswptools/
Burns, K. and Ó Súilleabháin, F. (2021) ‘Social media abuse of professionals’, 3rd Online Social Work Practice Webinar, January 2021, @UCCsocialwork, University College Cork, Ireland. Video: https://www.ucc.ie/en/appsoc/aboutus/activities/oswp/oswpwebinars/
Centre for Countering Digital Hate (2019) Don’t Feed the Trolls: A Practical Guide to Dealing with Hate on Social Media, available from: https://www.counterhate.com/dont-feed-the-trolls
Hammond, J. (2019) ‘Racist Facebook troll jailed for abuse of female politicians’, The Guardian, 26th July, available online: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/26/racist-facebook-troll-jailed-for-abuse-of-female-politicians-gerard-traynor
Hutton, B. (2021) ‘TV doctor launches online appeal to cover Arlene Foster defamation case costs’, The Irish Times, 30th May, available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/tv-doctor-launches-online-appeal-to-cover-arlene-foster-defamation-case-costs-1.4579345
Vilk, V. (2020) ‘What to do when your employee is harassed online’, Harvard Business Review, 21st July, available online: https://hbr.org/2020/07/what-to-do-when-your-employee-is-harassed-online