In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethical Issues in Social Work and Technology

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Boundary Issues
  • Ethics, Regulatory, and Practice Standards
  • Online Services, Social Media, and Social Networking
  • Social Work Education

Social Work Ethical Issues in Social Work and Technology
Frederic G. Reamer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0305


Digital technology has created unprecedented options for the delivery of social work services. Increasing numbers of practitioners are relying fully or partially on various forms of digital and other technological options to serve people who are struggling with a wide range of challenges, including mood disorders, anxiety, addictions, and relationship issues. Social work practice is no longer limited to office-based, in-person meetings with clients; in the early 21st century large numbers of social workers are using video counseling, email chat, social networking websites, text messaging, avatar-based platforms, self-guided web-based interventions, smartphone apps, and other technology to provide services to clients, some of whom they never meet in person. Social workers also rely on technology to search for information about clients online and to store sensitive information in electronic records.

Introductory Works

Social workers who seek a full understanding of ethical issues related to practitioners’ use of technology should become familiar with core concepts related to informed consent, confidentiality, professional boundaries, documentation, and collegial relationships. Social workers should also be familiar with various guidelines governing social workers’ use of technology, including relevant statutes, regulations, ethical standards, and practice standards. Barsky 2017, Reamer 2012, and Reamer 2021 provide broad overviews of ethical issues related to social workers’ use of technology. Chan and Holosko 2015 provides an overview of the literature on social workers’ use of information and communications technology (ICT) to deliver services. Kanani and Regehr 2003, Mattison 2012, and Midkiff and Wyatt 2008 discuss ethical challenges social workers encounter when they use various forms of online and digital technology, while Reamer 2013 and Reamer 2014 focus more specifically on risk management issues associated with social workers’ use of technology. Santhiveeran 2009 discusses the extent to which social workers’ websites adhere to standards in the NASW Code of Ethics.

  • Barsky, Allan. 2017. Social work practice and technology: Ethical issues and policy responses. Journal of Technology in Human Services 35.1: 8–19.

    DOI: 10.1080/15228835.2017.1277906

    This article highlights compelling ethical challenges facing social workers who use technology. The author explores various policies that social workers should consider in order to protect clients, practitioners, and human service agencies.

  • Chan, Chitat, and Michael Holosko. 2015. A review of information and communication technology enhanced social work interventions. Research on Social Work Practice 26.1: 88–100.

    DOI: 10.1177/1049731515578884

    This article presents the results of a systematic review of ICT-enhanced social work interventions. The authors assess literature on the role of ICT in the helping relationship process.

  • Kanani, Karima, and Cheryl Regehr. 2003. Clinical, ethical, and legal issues in e-therapy. Families in Society 84.2: 155–162.

    DOI: 10.1606/1044-3894.98

    This pioneering discussion addresses a wide range of clinical, ethical, and legal challenges associated with clinical social workers’ delivery of e-therapy services.

  • Mattison, Marian. 2012. Social work practice in the digital age: Therapeutic e-mail as a direct practice methodology. Social Work 57.3: 249–258.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/sws021

    This article discusses the potential benefits and risks of incorporating e-mail communications in clinical relationships between social workers and clients. The author addresses the need to develop best-practice guidelines.

  • Midkiff, Donna, and W. Joseph Wyatt. 2008. Ethical issues in the provision of online mental health services (etherapy). Technology in Human Services 26.2–4: 310–332.

    DOI: 10.1080/15228830802096994

    The authors provide an overview of challenging ethical issues associated with mental health professionals’ use of the internet to provide services.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2012. The digital and electronic revolution in social work: Rethinking the meaning of ethical practice. Ethics and Social Welfare 7:2–19.

    DOI: 10.1080/17496535.2012.738694

    This article explores the ethical implications of social workers’ growing use of digital and other electronic technology to serve clients, particularly in relation to practitioners’ commitment to clients, privacy and confidentiality, client self-determination and professional paternalism, informed consent, and professional–client boundaries and dual relationships.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2013. Social work in a digital age: Ethical and risk management challenges. Social Work 58.2: 163–172.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/swt003

    This article provides an overview of digital, online, and electronic social work services; identifies ethical issues related to practitioner competence, client privacy and confidentiality, informed consent, conflicts of interest, boundaries and dual relationships, consultation and client referral, termination and interruption of services, documentation, and research evidence; and offers practical risk-management advice.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2014. Clinical social work in a digital environment: Ethical and risk-management challenges. Clinical Social Work Journal 43.2: 120–132.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10615-014-0495-0

    This article identifies pertinent ethical and ethically related risk-management issues that clinical social workers need to consider when they contemplate using digital technology to communicate with and serve clients.

  • Reamer, Frederic. 2021. Ethics and risk management in online and distance social work. San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publishing.

    This book provides a succinct introduction to complex ethics and risk-management issues social workers encounter when they deliver services remotely, communicate with clients using online and digital technology, search online for information about clients, and record sensitive information in electronic records.

  • Santhiveeran, Janaki. 2009. Compliance of social work e-therapy websites to the NASW code of ethics. Social Work in Health Care 48.1: 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1080/00981380802231216

    The author assesses the extent to which social workers who provide online services adhere to standards in the NASW Code of Ethics.

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