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Social Workers in Cyberspace: UB School of Social Work Pursues a Vision for the Profession's Digital Future

Online tools can help social workers reach and treat clients

Release Date: November 8, 2011

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Nancy Smyth, dean of the UB School of Social Work, says social workers should embrace the use of digital technologies.

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 people."

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 challenges.

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 pace.

"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 conflict.

-- 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 deported.

"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 experience.

"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 that.'

"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 something about."

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Charles Anzalone
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anzalon@buffalo.edu