In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Impact of Emerging Technology in Social Work Practice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Books
  • Bibliographies
  • Websites and Online Sources to Monitor
  • Relevant Ethics and Practice Standards
  • Child Welfare
  • Older Adults and Caregivers
  • Health and Medicine
  • Mental Health
  • Substance Use Disorders and Other Addictions
  • Veterans
  • Social Work Degree Programs and Continuing Professional Development
  • The Future

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Social Work Impact of Emerging Technology in Social Work Practice
Paul Freddolino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0277


There is little doubt that social work practice has been, is, and will continue to be impacted by emerging technologies, generally defined in terms of information and communication technologies (ICT), in the United States and around the globe. However, while it is relatively easy to locate descriptions of innovative technologies and social work services utilizing these technologies, it is somewhat more difficult to locate concrete evidence to illustrate actual widely-adopted changes in the practice arena brought about as a result of ICTs. It is harder still to identify concrete, data-based evidence concerning the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of these technologies and services, the “real impact” that changes clients’ lives. Furthermore, there is little discussion concerning the concurrent impact of other significant ongoing transformations in social work practice that in some ways support increased impact of emerging technologies and in other ways limit their potential impact. Such trends as the following: the increasing prevalence of integrated mental health and substance abuse services into “behavioral health”; the promotion of inter-professional and multidisciplinary approaches; greater awareness of, and in some venues now required, focus on patient/client-centered care; heightened acknowledgement of the role of caregivers and their enhanced influence and power as advocates; heightened prevalence of universal design principles; increased attention to mindfulness; and greater sensitivity to the short- and long-term impact of trauma are all relevant. These trends create an environment in which emerging ICTs can have greater potential impact. They interact with both the development of new technologies and the escalating awareness of the potential of these technologies by practitioners, the agencies that employ them, and the clients and caregivers who utilize their services. Also involved are for-profit enterprises that see in this technology-enhanced arena a potential to earn substantial profits. The available sources make clear that little is indeed clear, and that there are both challenges and opportunities confronting the use of emerging technologies, with critical trade-offs between access and privacy, and between enhanced services and technology-related barriers to these services. Throughout this review social work’s commitment to social justice provides a lens that cannot be ignored, demanding recognition of sources whose description of impact may be less optimistic than that of ICT cheerleaders. The current state of affairs should serve as a call to action for all stakeholders in the human services to share information and data about these emerging trends, and to play an active role in their further development to ensure that the demands of social justice are addressed.

General Overviews

Although optimistic assessments of the promise of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and concerns about related ethical issues have appeared in public and professional literature for decades, in the past ten years social work’s awareness of the possibilities and ethical challenges of emerging technologies in practice has become increasingly evident. Mishna, et al. 2012 highlights the practice reality that often clients will drive practitioners’ exposure to new technologies and their need to determine ethically appropriate strategies to incorporate them. Perron, et al. 2010 provides a good overview of the changes and challenges. As part of the Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative promoted by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, Berzin, et al. 2015 and Coulton, et al. 2015 provide rich overviews of currently available technologies and particularly the future possibilities of ICT-based services and the power of big data. Both of these provide relevant background to the arguments about the future of the profession discussed in Council on Social Work Education 2018. Chan and Holosko 2018 has annotated an extensive collection of resources on the technologies available for social work interventions. Numerous studies and commentaries make clear that access and the “digital divide” remain concerns. Steyaert and Gould 2009 asks if the digital divide is expanding or being reduced. Rainie 2017 illustrates that the issues have been not eliminated but only changed, and Levin 2019 argues that in fact the digital divide is getting worse. Goldkind and Wolf 2015 reminds us of the social justice implications of the technology-induced transformations in the profession. The implications for social work education and professional development are discussed in Social Work Degree Programs and Continuing Professional Development and The Future.

  • Berzin, S. C., J. Singer, and C. Chan. 2015. Practice innovation through technology in the digital age: A grand challenge for social work. Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 12. Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

    In addressing the technology grand challenge through a focus on direct practice, the authors argue that ICT provides considerable power to transform social work practice. Numerous examples of new technology-based social work tools are provided, which tweak the imagination of social work practitioners.

  • Chan, C., and M. Holosko. 2018. Technology for social work interventions. In Oxford bibliographies in social work. Edited by E. Mullen. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195389678-0263

    This very thorough annotated bibliography presents an extensive list of books, journals, online resources, organizational links, and examples of technology-based interventions, including some assessments of emerging tools.

  • Coulton, C. J., R. Goerge, E. Putnam-Hornstein, and B. de Haan. 2015. Harnessing big data for social good: A grand challenge for social work. Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative Working Paper No. 11. Cleveland, OH: American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.

    The authors consider the potential of extensive information from social service agencies, law enforcement, and social media. While noting the possibilities they also highlight the field’s limited experience in handling big data, and the absence of clearly articulated principles and policies to address the ethical and legal concerns raised by use of such data. These challenges will result in considerable delay in effective use of big data.

  • Council on Social Work Education. 2018. Envisioning the future of social work: Report of the CSWE futures task force.

    This report from American social work’s national accrediting body for bachelors and masters social work degree programs describes four scenarios defined by the extent to which social work will be successful in utilizing the technology in social work practice, and the extent to which social workers assume leadership roles beyond traditional fields like child welfare. For each of the scenarios the report identifies what are labeled “critical questions” for social work education’s future.

  • Goldkind, L., and L. Wolf. 2015. A digital environment approach: Four technologies that will disrupt social work practice. Social Work 60: 85–88.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/swu045

    This brief commentary describes four technologies potentially disruptive to social work practice—the Internet of Things, big data, mobile technologies, and gamification. The authors note that while results may be positive, the changes may also present social work with serious social justice issues tied to inequality. Available online by subscription.

  • Levin, B. 2019. The coming digital divide: What to do, and not do, about it.

    This post considers the possible impact of cable upgrades to high speed (1,000MBPS) service and 5G wireless high-speed service on different communities, and notes the policy and political issues that intrude on effective action. A “new digital divide compact” is described.

  • Mishna, F., M. Bogo, J. Root, J. Sawyer, and M. Khoury-Kassabri. 2012. “It just crept in”: The digital age and implications for social work practice. Clinical Social Work Journal 40: 277–286.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10615–012–0383–4

    This qualitative study uses focus groups and interviews to learn practitioners’ experience with how ICT has impacted their traditional practice and their perceptions of the implications for practice in the future. Results revealed changed relationships, with clients driving more of the interaction and boundaries less clear.

  • Perron, B., H. O. Taylor, J. E. Glass, and J. Margerum-Leys. 2010. Information and communication technologies in social work. Advances in Social Work 11.2: 67–81.

    DOI: 10.18060/241

    This review of then-emerging ICTs highlights their tremendous growth, their expanding impact on practice, and the inadequate attention they have received in the social work literature. The authors stress the importance of technology literacy and competency for practitioners.

  • Rainie, L. 2017. Digital divides – Feeding America Pew Research Center, Internet and Technology

    This presentation to the board of Feeding America uses data from late 2016 to examine the impact of income, education, race and ethnicity, age, and community type on Internet access, home broadband, and smartphone ownership. Also included is the notion of “digital readiness gaps.”

  • Steyaert, J., and N. Gould. 2009. Social work and the changing face of the digital divide. British Journal of Social Work 39.4: 740–753.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcp022

    The authors examine the digital divide and its links to social exclusion from a European perspective. They consider whether the digital divide is getting larger or smaller and conclude that it is changing, becoming more complex with access alone now only a small part of the issue. Various interventions to address the digital divide are described, and concern that greater information available on the Internet will lead to increased exclusion is highlighted.

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