What does the Digital Revolution Mean for Social Workers?

We live in an increasingly digitized world. With government and financial services available online or through mobile devices, consumer ecosystems favoring digital systems and access to knowledge abundant on the internet, individuals are increasingly dependent on technology to participate in the economy. However, internet access isn’t universal, and the ability to leverage contemporary technologies is often limited by access to capital resources. Social workers can bridge this digital divide through a combination of community advocacy and counseling services. However, the pervasiveness of digital systems has complicated the issue beyond questions of access.

The progression of the digital divide

Discussions around the relationship between technology and social justice have been happening since the days of the industrial revolution. In the digital world, however, the rapid pace of innovation in recent decades has led to a great deal of urgency. The need to accelerate access to technology came to a head in 2014 when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, spoke on behalf of the then new advocacy group focused on establishing free baseline access to the internet across the globe.

Presenting at the GSMA Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg explained that approximately 80 percent of the world’s population lives in a region covered by 2G or 3G mobile network services. What’s more, he stated, the cost of a basic smartphone is not overly prohibitive relative to the value it creates. The problem is that many can’t afford the costs of those widespread data services.

After his presentation, used Zuckerberg’s keynote address as a launching point for a project to expand free access to basic internet services.
The goal, at the time, was simple—provide adequate internet access to drive economic growth. Deloitte completed a study for and found that extending internet penetration would cause a 30 percent decrease in extreme poverty in Africa, a 13 percent decrease in South America, a 28 percent decrease in India, and a 16 percent decrease in South and East Asia.

In the years that have passed since this initial foray conversation on bridging the digital divide, a variety of pilot projects using drones and similar devices to expand internet service have emerged. Furthermore, discussions about treating the internet as a utility and offering free basic service have become much more common. The New York Times reported that Sprint, Comcast, and Facebook are all working to establish free or extremely inexpensive internet for low-income households and people living in rural areas who may lack service.

The digital divide is starting to decline in terms of numbers, but that doesn’t mean the social issue around access to digital services is going away. In particular, it is still evident that low-income households are much worse off than wealthier households when it comes to internet access. Pew Research found that approximately 90 percent of U.S. households have access to the internet. However, that figure declines to 81 percent for homes with an annual income of less than $30,000. For home broadband services, 73 percent of all households have access, but again, low-income households struggle with just 53 percent service penetration. Approximately 63 percent of individuals without internet believe they would need help getting access, while just 17 percent said they know enough to get online on their own.

Social workers can make an impact in these situations by creating and managing community groups that teach people how to use the internet and avoid its risks or through advocacy and lobbying to promote internet access for low-income households.

While basic internet access plays a key role in dealing with income inequality, social workers also have a role to play in helping communities and individuals in the aftermath of a transition to a digital ecosystem. As more services and interactions take place on electronic devices or via the internet, society must adjust to new social and psychological challenges that are emerging.

Pursuing justice in the aftermath of digital’s rise

Increased societal reliance on digital services creates new social ecosystems that must be addressed within the social work profession. Whether it is responding to emerging forms of psychological pressure or promoting privacy, social workers have plenty to think about as they engage with individuals and communities struggling with the pace of change being driven by technology. Three issues particularly stand out as critical areas of change:

  1. Discrimination, bullying and abuse
    Social workers in a variety of sectors play a role in helping individuals dealing with the aftermath of discrimination, bullying, or abuse. The easy access to information and ability to communicate with just about anybody, anywhere through the internet can make it easier for adverse social situations to develop. For example, a report from the Ford Foundation explained that the number of reported hate crimes is increasing as online communities allow for the promotion of hate groups. This foundation is leaving many minority or special interest groups the target of radical online groups that use technology to perpetrate hate and potentially harm others.

    Radical groups aren’t the only example of how the anonymity of online interactions makes it easier to prey on individuals. A study from the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 36.3 percent of female respondents and 30.7 percent of male respondents have been cyberbullied at some point in their lives. Of male respondents, 13.3 percent said they have cyberbullied others, while 10.7 percent of females did so. To complicate matters, 64 percent of those polled said that cyberbullying has affected their ability to feel safe at school and learn.
    These issues are further complicated by the growing movement of individuals becoming online trolls in order to gain attention or simply enjoy themselves by frustrating others. Some trolls set out to create chaos, but the ultimate result, according to a report from The Conversation, is a situation in which individuals use the anonymity of the internet to target victims based on the entertainment value associated with the interactions, which can often include cyberbullying. Furthermore, efforts to limit trolling are rarely effective. The rise of trolling is highlighting just how prevalent cyberbulling is becoming in society.

    The rising tension around hate, bullying, and trolling online can erupt when individuals or communities are pushed beyond their limits. This is where social work skills are necessary to promote healing, help people understand how to handle adverse situations to the best of their abilities and create support systems that allow for reconciliation and healthy online interactions. Social workers may not be able to prevent discrimination, bullying, and abuse that take place online, but they can help people overcome it.

  2. Privacy
    Privacy is increasingly being discussed as a civil rights and social justice issue. The American Bar Association maintains a Privacy and Information Protection committee as part of its Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice division. That group is currently working on promoting a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and working to establish guidelines for fair and just use of biometric identifiers. Issues around privacy are in the spotlight in our increasingly digital world.

    The Ford Foundation report mentioned earlier explained that increased surveillance in our society can put vulnerable groups further under the microscope. Databases identifying trends in population data could be used to miscategorize or discriminate against minorities. Algorithmic bias is emerging as a potential avenue for abuse. This environment also puts pressure on social advocacy groups to ramp up their protections to avoid becoming targets for surveillance or harassment.

    These factors add up to make privacy considerations a major social justice issue in light of the digital transformation happening around us. As social workers interact with the communities they serve, the need to promote privacy is becoming acute. This can include not only protecting patient confidentiality, but also providing counseling for those who are either afraid or facing trauma as a result of invasions of privacy.

    Research published in the Sage Journal went so far as to say that better data governance is needed on a societal level to promote social justice. To achieve this goal, the way individuals and society as a whole resist surveillance needs to be reconsidered.

  3. Data and digital services in social work
    The increased dependence on digital technologies and an always-connected world create new challenges for the social work sector. They also create new opportunities. The Ford Foundation report explained that increased access to data can allow for greater transparency and accountability across a wide range of sectors. This can make it easier for social justice leaders to support progressive ideas and promote positive change within communities.

    This is evident in the public sector as well, as the news source pointed out that there is growing pressure to establish transparency within both the government and advocacy communities.

    As social workers respond to these trends, they must be aware of not only how they can use data and digital services to further their goals, but also how they must protect information and govern their own procedures to stand up to regulatory and public scrutiny. Social workers increasingly need to be prepared to ramp up their documentation efforts, particularly if they are working in the public sector. At the same time, the same technologies that make this level of transparency possible also allow social workers to touch base with the people they serve more easily. Considering key issues like how to set boundaries for digital interactions with patients and which online channels are acceptable for communication is critical moving forward.

Preparing for social work in a digital world

Staying on top of the emerging issues in the social work industry can seem overwhelming, but advanced degrees in the sector can prove instrumental here. The Master of Social Work from Rutgers University provides a convenient online MSW opportunity so working professionals can advance their knowledge and skills. Whether you are a social worker looking to get ahead of emerging challenges or a career-changer hoping to enter the social work field, the MSW can offer the combination of foundational and specialized course opportunities necessary for social work today.

While issues surrounding access to digital services and the implications of technological advances continue to emerge in society today, social workers can position themselves to take advantage of digital solutions and promote justice in their communities.

Recommended Readings:
Social Work in 2020: What Current Students Should Know about the Field
Seven Traits of an Exceptional Social Worker


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