Abstract: Informal Use of Information and Communication Technology in Social Work in Four Countries (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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632P Informal Use of Information and Communication Technology in Social Work in Four Countries

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Faye Mishna, PhD, Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Jane Sanders, MSW, Assistant Professor, King's University College at Western, London, ON, Canada
Betsy Milne, BA, Research Assistant, Munk School of Global Affairs


The ubiquitous use of information and communication technology (ICT) globally has transformed professional fields including social work. Unlike the application of standalone formal online ICT such as e-counseling, informal ICT use occurs as an adjunct to the primary/formal modality of face-to-face, typically between sessions (e.g., cancel appointments, provide updates). There is limited research however, exploring the benefits, risks and outcomes of informal ICT use in social work practice.


The purpose of the current research was to examine social workers’ informal ICT use with clients. Informed by an ecological systems framework and the technological acceptance model, a cross-sectional online survey entitled #socialwork, was designed comprising five sections: 1) demographics; 2) organizational settings; 3) informal ICT use; 4) boundaries; and 5) policy/supervision/consultation. The survey was distributed to social workers across Canada (n = 2,609), the United States (n = 1,225), Israel (n=386), and the UK (n=134). Research Ethics approval was obtained through each respective university.


Findings reveal strong similarities and consistencies across the four countries. Social workers younger than 30 years used informal ICT less frequently than older age groups. Additionally, a considerable number of participants reported not discussing informal ICT use with supervisors or colleagues. Notably, informal ICT use is ubiquitous across all sectors, fields of practice and with all populations. The findings reveal complex ethical and clinical dilemmas raised by informal ICT use, such as: searching online for clients’ personal information, and clients searching for practitioners’ information; and determining how to respond to clients’ ‘friend requests’ through social media.

Conclusions and Implications:

Informal ICT use is ubiquitous among social workers across the four countries. Social workers may not fully understand how practice is changing with informal ICT use, due to such complex issues as consent, trustworthiness, and the working relationship. As informal ICT use may invariably emerge unexpectedly in practice (e.g., Facebook friend request, a message of suicidal ideation), it is critical that social work practitioners are prepared to respond effectively to such occurrences and associated outcomes. In particular, the actions and responses of practitioners may have important implications for the working alliance, essential to the therapeutic process. Moreover, in accordance with the Grand Challenges of Social Work, Harnessing Technology for Good, it is essential to consider how informal ICTs can be implemented ethically and effectively with clients, including addressing differential access to ICT resources, based on factors such as income, education, rural/urban location, immigration status or age.

Despite ethical guidelines and policies, the findings correspond with previous research, showing that professionals are managing the novel and difficult considerations of informal ICTs on their own, lacking information, without consultation and with little training. Study results, therefore, underscore the importance of education, training, policy and supervision related to ICT use in practice. The findings, therefore, have important implications for social work practice, policy and education. In this presentation we will discuss the complex implications and considerations of informal, adjunct ICT use in social work.