What would the world look like if a social worker was the CEO of Meta?
Imagine a world where technology and social media are used for good and developments in digital spaces are evaluated through an anti-racist, equitable, inclusive, and climate justice lens. What would those digital spaces look like? Would the platforms be the same, but the content is different? Or would digital spaces look entirely different? How would the tech developments be funded? How does this change work in a society built on white supremacy and patriarchal values? Can an anti-racist, equitable, inclusive tech space exist alone? What would digital spaces look like and what would the world look like if these lenses were considered?
People are using social media and technology at a much higher rate and speed than even ten years ago (Auxier & Anderson, 2021). People are engaging in digital spaces through smartphones every day and often spend multiple hours in digital spaces a day (Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States, 2019). So how is this impacting people and society? Where does the social work profession fall within this uptick and digital evolution?
Social workers use ecological systems theory, person-in-environment, and biopsychosocial assessments to evaluate and create change (Bronfenbrenner, 1992; Kondrat, 2013; Friedman & Allen, 2011). Digital spaces intersect with all these theories and frameworks. Therefore, social workers need to consider digital spaces as enviorments and be in them. So, let’s explore what social workers are currently doing in tech spaces, then imagine a future with social work leading tech spaces, and then discuss what you can do right now!
What are social workers doing right now in tech spaces?
Although the social work profession has been slow to embrace tech and generally lacks adequate digital literacy skills, some social workers are using tech in social work practice (Goldkind et al., 2016; Literat, 2014; Rheingold, 2013; Shorkey, 2014; Young, 2015). Social workers use TikTok and Instagram to provide psychoeducation on symptoms and coping skills. Some of these accounts are created for clients on social workers caseloads, while others are for the public with a specialized focus on trauma, domestic violence, human trafficking, or addiction. Hashtags such as #BlackGirlMagic are incorporated into frameworks to utilize with clients (Walton & Oyewuwo-Gassikia, 2017). Social media is also used by social workers to advocate, provide general knowledge, and advance social work practice (Goldkind et al., 2018; McNutt & Goldkind, 2018). Some social workers are working directly for tech companies (not without a lot of struggles!) to provide a trauma-informed framework to help influence tech developments. This is simply a quick snapshot of some examples of social workers using tech for good and client engagement—yet the profession is only scratching the surface.
Imagine a future scenario for social workers in tech
Think about a tech company. Maybe one of the ‘big nine’ that Amy Webb identifies in her book, “The big nine: How the tech titans and their thinking machines could warp humanity” (Webb, 2019). Let’s think big and go with Meta (formally Facebook). What if a social worker was the CEO of Meta? What would the world look like if all Meta products and algorithm settings were screened through an anti-racist, equitable, inclusive, and climate justice lens? How would people interact differently in this digital space? What social impact would that have? And imagine that in addition to the leadership having a very different lens from the current tech company administration, there is a team of social workers that monitor and provide interventions based on what was being observed and assessed through these lenses. Maybe an intervention for online bullying in real-time? Or identifying the spread of false news? Or virtual reality digital literacy courses embedded in social media? Or timers that provide grounding and meditation pauses in digital spaces led by social workers?
What you can do right now!
Thinking about a significant system change such as tech can sometimes lead to feelings of overwhelm and confusion on what to do next. Here are some next steps you can take to help incorporate tech into your social work practice.
First, get curious and learn! Tech spaces are continuously changing and evolving, but social workers need to understand the impact of these spaces on people. Here are a few resources to start or expand your learning journey.
Books to read to start thinking about tech, social work, and society:
Charlton D. Mcilwain: Black Software: The Internet & Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter
Lauri Goldkind, Lea Wolf, and Paul P. Freddolino: Digital Social Work: Tools for Practice with Individuals, Organizations, and Communities
Coded Bias directed by Shalini Kantayya
husITa Podcast series with Dr. Jimmy Young
Another essential practice is to ask questions and engage your clients in conversations around their experiences with technology. By asking about their use and experiences, a social worker can incorporate that information into assessment and interventions with the clients. For example, are they using social media? If so, what apps and platforms? Are they engaging with others or passively scrolling? How does their body feel when they are online? Is it hard to stop? Where do they get their news? Do they know about privacy settings?
And ask yourself these questions! Try exploring online platforms (social media list here) to better understand the spaces. As a social worker and person, you may not agree with the sites or even want to participate. Still, it is critical to understand the digital landscape clients engage in to help assess digital health and provide support and psychoeducation.
And then breathe. Take a big deep breath. Digital spaces are ever-changing and evolving. You do not have to know everything, but it is critical to remain curious and engaged in digital culture.
Written by Alexis Glennon
Auxier, B., & Anderson, M. (2021, April 7). Social Media Use in 2021. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1992). Ecological systems theory. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
“Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, www.pewreserach.org/internet/ Fact-sheet/mobile/.
Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality: How high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor. St. Martin’s Press.
Friedman, B. D., & Allen, K. N. (2011). Systems theory. Theory & practice in clinical social work, 2(3), 3-20.
Goldkind, L., Wolf, L., & Jones, J. (2016). Late adapters? How social workers acquire knowledge and skills about technology tools. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 34(4), 338-358.
Goldkind, L., Wolf, L., & Freddolino, P. P. (Eds.). (2018). Digital social work: Tools for practice with individuals, organizations, and communities. Oxford University Press.
Kondrat, M. E. (2013). Person-in-environment. In Encyclopedia of social work.
Literat, I. (2014). Measuring new media literacies: Towards the development of a comprehensive assessment tool. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 6(1), 15–27.
McIlwain, C. D. (2019). Black software: The internet and racial justice, from the Afronet to Black lives matter. Oxford University Press, USA.
Rheingold, H. (2013). Participative pedagogy for a literacy of literacies. In A. Delwhiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The participatory cultures handbook (pp. 232–243). New York, NY: Routledge.
Shorkey, C. T., & Uebel, M. (2014). History and development of instructional technology and media in social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 50(2), 247–261.
Walton, Q. L., & Oyewuwo-Gassikia, O. B. (2017). The case for# BlackGirlMagic: Application of a strengths-based, intersectional practice framework for working with black women with depression. Affilia, 32(4), 461-475.
Webb, A. (2019). The big nine: How the tech titans and their thinking machines could warp humanity. Hachette UK.
Young, J. A. (2015). Assessing new media literacies in social work education: Developing and validating a comprehensive assessment instrument. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 33(1), 72-86.