In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Virtual Reality and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • Professional Issues
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Practice
  • Research
  • Technical Development

Social Work Virtual Reality and Social Work
Robert Vernon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0309


Virtual reality in social work education and practice is relatively new. There is not a large literature on it—note that several of the resources below are authored by the same colleagues. Given the rapid evolution of the technologies, there are limited resources in terms of works within the last fifteen years. Juried resources published by recognized experts are provided. There are basically two distinct forms. First, we have virtual worlds such as Second Life where controlled avatars explore simulated environments. Virtual worlds can be quite varied and rich in visual content. Complete creation of hospitals, service agencies, schools, and places of worship are possible. Support groups for a variety of problems and ability challenges can regularly meet “in world.” Participation is usually synchronous. Most virtual worlds are accessible via personal computers. Participation costs are generally absent. Virtual worlds are not “games” but instead are platforms in which games may be played, role plays may be staged, classes and seminars held. The second virtual reality technology is generally found in laboratory settings. Participants don 3D helmets or goggles and explore environments that are computer-based. Purposes for creating and establishing these environments vary. For example, people suffering from PTSD can explore and relive traumatic events with therapeutic guidance towards symptom relief. As in the case of virtual worlds, lab-based simulations are usually synchronous. Just as avatars may interact with each other, lab-based experiences can include multiple participants. Each of these technologies offers promise for social work education and practice. Students in distance education can work together even when separated by oceans. Students can engage in service evaluation in virtual worlds. Students can learn about addiction triggers through creating the 3D environments that have modeled them. Both formats may be termed multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) though terms vary. Of interest, if one looks at this bibliography as a data sample, educational uses tend to be through virtual worlds while practice uses may tend to be more in laboratory settings. The opening section discusses critical professional issues that may apply to using virtual reality innovations in social work. The next sections take up educational and practice applications. Articles that predominantly address research issues follow. Finally, resources for developing virtual world experiences are provided.

Professional Issues

As virtual reality becomes more widely accepted in social work education and practice, the profession’s ethics and standards for use need to be addressed. Five sources below provide guidance for researchers, educators, and practitioners. Cosner-Berzin, et al. 2015 discusses the use of technology as one of the twelve “Grand Challenges” for social work. Trahan, et al. 2019 provides interesting insights into the twelve. The recently updated 2021 NASW Code of Ethics includes technology and practice issues. The 2017 Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice provide specific recommendations for professional use. Technology and social work policy are discussed in the current iteration of the policy anthology Social Work Speaks 2021–2023, and undoubtedly will be taken up when revised and updated in future editions.

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

    This working paper specifically addresses the use of technology in social work practice. Issues for investigation are identified including virtual social work.

  • National Association of Social Workers. 2021. Code of Ethics.

    The Code specifically identifies ethical practice issues and computer applications in many parts of the document including both the brief Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics and extensive Ethical Standards sections.

  • NASW, ASWB, CSWE, & CSWA. 2017. Standards for technology in social work practice.

    These standards replace the earlier 2005 edition. Virtual reality technology is applicable. Both practice and educational issues are addressed. [class:report]

  • NASW Press. Social work speaks. 12th ed. Washington, DC: NASW PRESS, 2021–2023.

    A specific policy statement on technology and social work is included. Available online for purchase.

  • Trahan, M., K. Smith, A Taylor, M. Washburn, N. Moore, and A. Mancillas. 2019. Three-dimensional virtual reality: Applications to the 12 grand challenges of social work. Journal of Technology in Human Services 37.1: 13–31.

    DOI: 10.1080/15228835.2019.1599765

    The authors explore how various forms of virtual reality may be used in practice. They specifically address each of the twelve grand challenges in terms of how virtual reality interventions may affect change. Limits and constraints concerning consumer access are discussed along with possible technological innovations.

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