BUFFALO, N.Y. -- From text messages to making appointments
online to the mysterious avatar alter egos in Second Life, Nancy
Smyth would like to see social workers comfortable with all the
tools in cyberspace in order to do their real work -- making a
difference in people's lives -- in a digital age.
"Five years ago, I was telling therapists when I was training
them, 'You can't ethically practice anymore and not be online,' "
says Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work at the University at
Buffalo, who is making the possibilities -- and advantages -- of
cyberspace one of her priorities.
"You want the best information on up-to-date treatment methods.
And you needed to be online to get that, since many of the
state-of-the art intervention manuals and resources are available
there years before they are available in other formats," Smyth
says. "It's about access to experts. It's about access to tools
clients can use. And it's about understanding what our clients are
doing, and how it affects their lives."
Call it life skills for the digital age, she says. If social
workers are to achieve their goals -- reaching those in need,
healing them, changing the world through their knowledge and
passion -- they need to harness the power of cyberspace and the
world of e-patients, issues she thinks and talks about with
colleagues, both in her "real life" and in virtual spaces, like her
blog "Virtual Connections," http://njsmyth.wordpress.com
and via her Twitter feed http://twitter.com/njsmyth.
"All these technologies are becoming embedded in people's
lives," she says. "So for social workers, it becomes really
important for us to have a good grounding in the technologies, how
they can be used helpfully and how they can run into problems for
The first task is getting social workers comfortable in these
spaces, Smyth says. "Social workers are not often thought of as
technology people," she says. "So getting our students comfortable
with technology is a start."
Under Smyth's leadership, UB's School of Social Work has
consistently risen through the ranks in surveys of the nation's
graduate schools of social work, in part because of programs that
harness the therapeutic power of technology.
Still, Smyth holds no illusions when it comes to assessing the
progress her school and the social work profession as a whole have
made coming to terms with cyberspace opportunities and
Most of the courses offered through UB's School of Social Work
use technology in some way, she says. But the real value of coming
to terms with the digital age is being aware of the possibilities
and having the tools to take advantage of it.
"It might be as simple as using text messaging to reschedule
appointments," Smyth says. "It sounds trite. But I had a former
client who recently shared how difficult it was for her to interact
with therapists who were not accessible via these means. She
experienced it as feeling that people were being very withholding,
and their inaccessibility actually triggered some of her traumas
and abandonment issues."
Although important, text messaging is merely an introduction in
the brave new world of social work in cyberspace. From providing
online treatment and therapy to mounting social campaigns that
organize people and change the world, the possibilities to reach
more people and in more effective ways come down to imagination and
a modest ability to work the technology, Smyth says:
-- Providing Therapy on the Web: "It depends on the
quality of your relationship and how central the therapeutic
relationship is to the healing process," Smyth says. "Is it someone
I've never met before face-to-face? Or is it someone I've worked
with for years and now they have moved out of the area?" If a level
of trust has already been established, she says, a client and
therapist could easily meet via Skype or another video link. Online
therapy has been found to be effective for some problems, such as
anxiety and depression.
Even without the therapist, existing software packages that have
proven effective can take the person through steps of some types of
cognitive-behavioral treatment or teach them skills at their own
"I'm thinking about anger-management skills or coping with
stress," Smyth says. "In the same way I can create a course to
address these, I can also create this as an intervention for
someone as a software package.
"I have a hard time thinking certain types of trauma memory
treatment would work with people that way, mostly because I rely on
my physical presence to help them with the here and now. And I lose
that ability on a Web cam," Smyth says. "But for certain types of
cognitive behavioral therapy and talking treatment, I think you
could do just fine. In fact, research is starting to come out on
the effectiveness of a range of virtual therapies. And there is a
lot of promise in that."
-- Second Life: The alternate virtual world that uses
simulated identities or "avatars" already has shown its therapeutic
value. The U.S. Department of Defense has sponsored a
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) site for Second Life avatars
to visit and assess their PTSD symptoms and discover how to connect
with treatment resources.
Smyth sees the potential of clients confronting issues they
would be embarrassed about in their normal lives -- such as sexual
problems -- in Second Life spaces. They would be joined by others
who want to remain anonymous. She notes that many self-help groups
now hold regular meetings in Second Life.
"If I didn't want people to know what was wrong with me, this is
how I could do it," Smyth says. "If it's a text chat, no one is
going to hear me in my house, and that's different than if I'm
using a Web cam. Second Life has a level of anonymity that isn't
available in face-to-face or even phone outreach situations. I can
find out for myself whether I have symptoms of PTSD or not because
I can do my own self-assessment there, without anyone ever knowing
who I was."
-- Online groups: Online support groups can be great
resources to people in rural areas, to people whose lives are
place-bound (e.g., because they are caring for sick family members)
or to people who are confronting a rare health condition. Social
workers need to be aware of the range of these resources available
to help clients enhance their social support, and that includes
online groups. At the same time, social workers have to consider
how what we know about groups may or may not transfer to an online
setting, such as group dynamics and strategies for managing
-- Privacy and Ethical Issues:Students still need to be
more aware of how the information they present online can become
part of their permanent professional identity.
"This sounds very simple, but we have students who are thinking
differently about this, especially when they are younger," Smyth
says. "They aren't considering that photos of themselves getting
drunk in college may be seen by their clients, or by future
employers. This is becoming a concern for many young people --
there are whole companies based on reputation management, helping
people to get these things removed from the Internet."
Another example would be the common practice of businesses
setting up their own Facebook page. "How do you address how to use
that page so you don't end up disclosing private information?"
Smyth asks. "What is your obligation? And do you ever friend your
clients? You need to talk about what some of those lines are. And
we need to talk about them in our professional schools. What kinds
of things do we need to educate our students about when you start
putting yourself out there to those spaces?"
-- Seizing the Power to Organize for Social Movements:
Social workers want to change the world, and cyberspace allows them
to bring people with common interests together and give them a
voice they never would have had.
One creative project on the West Coast gave homeless people cell
phones with video capabilities to contribute to a common blog
documenting their lives. Immigrant-rights activists have created a
Facebook page to alert each other when people are being unfairly
"There are populations of people who don't have a voice, and yet
these social network channels can be used in creative ways to mount
social campaigns and change policies," Smyth says.
Therapists face similar questions through all these channels.
They have to understand the strengths and drawbacks of each, and
the best way to get that knowledge is through firsthand
"The key is asking yourself what you need to learn," says Smyth.
"What are you trying to achieve? What are your goals? What is the
best tool to help you do that? People have to understand the range
of tools at least enough so they have an idea of, 'Oh, this sounds
like something I could do. I'll go out and learn more about
"Essentially, social workers and educators have to stay curious
about technology: about what it can offer and about its
constraints," Smyth says. "Too often I hear colleagues write-off
all technology saying "I'm a people person, I'm not into
technology. What they don't realize is people are using these tools
to connect with each other -- it's not really about the technology,
it's about relationships. And that's something social work knows
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