Feel Lost in the Changing Landscape of Technology Skills for Social Workers? Let’s Map Them Out Together!


by Alexis Speck Glennon, LCSW-R, and Julie Muñoz-Nájar, MSW, LSW

     Both newly minted and seasoned social workers are grappling with the changing technology landscape of our 21st-century work. After reading that first line, you are probably assuming that this article will take the straight “beeline” to a discussion on telehealth. We are going on a different journey, so grab your compass! 

     Professionals in fields such as education, information sciences, communication, and so forth, are having conversations around technology and raising the red flags that the evolving landscape is presenting. The social work profession as a whole may not be as equipped as we need to be in helping ourselves, our clients, and general society in navigating the changing world of technology. This article is intended to help you grow in your digital competencies as they relate to your practice. As mentioned in the NASW Code of Ethics (2021) and an article by Stephen Cummings (2018), both hard and soft competencies related to technology need to be reflected in our knowledge and demonstration. Digital spaces have their own languages, customs, and values. Thus, we need to continually reassess our skills and competencies to practice ethically. 

     As two specialized (clinical) faculty members who have been surveying the research and needs of social workers and technology, we too are grappling with how to bridge the gap between what we need to know now and what we need to know for our future.  To serve as your tech guides into this unfamiliar technology world, we would like to map out a very brief glossary of technology terms (information technologies, digital literacy, new media literacy, digital responsibility, digital ethics, digital citizenship, digital empathy, and digital resilience), explain why they matter to both our “real” selves and to our digital selves and then bridge it to practice.

Social Work and Technology

       #SWTECH, why does this matter? In our roles as social workers, we are working, sharing, and caring in digital spaces while simultaneously hearing from individual clients and communities about how this technological growth is impacting them as individuals and more broadly in our society. Not surprisingly, as of February 2021, 91% of adults report having either a smartphone or access to the internet (Perrin, 2021). As broadband access to the internet has increased, the scope of social work practice’s person-in-environment has expanded to digital spaces.

     It’s important to bring awareness that although expansion and access are happening for many, others are in digital poverty, thereby excluded from technology as a result of hardware costs and non-existent, inadequate, or cost-prohibitive internet access in rural, urban, and communities of color, all of which hinders social capital and accessibility (Reisdorf et al., 2020; Atske & Perrin, 2021). Even with some communities being excluded or delayed in how they access digital spaces, the expansion of digital environments often includes venturing into the potentially unfamiliar digital world, which requires social workers to critically think about their skill sets, ability to adapt to the current digital landscape, and how to anticipate and prepare for future technologies (Goldkind et al., 2016).

     Before deciding whether you will adapt, embrace, or reject aspects of technology, learning the foundational digital terms and related skills is equally important to understanding the technology ecology and its presence in social work practice and competency. To get us started, grab your emotional support water bottle and let’s cross the bridge into the tech landscape to scope out foundational digital terms and related skills. Then we will puddle hop into some scenarios illustrating how they might apply to your practice.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)

     Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are electronic tools used to convey, manipulate, and store information (Perron et.al, 2010).

How it is used:

  • Computers
  • Cell phones
  • Tablets
  • Email
  • Social media apps
  • Distance learning websites (e.g., Canvas)
  • Cloud services

Digital Literacy

     Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information (Considine et. al., 2009; Carrington, 2018).

How it is used:

  • Using Zoom
  • Web Browsing
  • Creating with PowerPoint

New Media Literacy

     New media literacy is a specific set of social skills and cultural competencies that are critically used to navigate new digital spaces (Young, 2015).

How it is used:

  • Identifying fake news
  • Privacy settings
  • Impact of algorithms
  • Social media use
  • Online safety
  • Online networking

Digital Responsibility

     Digital responsibility refers to efforts by people to contribute to a more sustainable, more inclusive, fair, and value-based digital society beyond the legal minimum (Trier et al., 2022). 

How it is used:

  • Being authentic online
  • Thinking critically about what social media platforms to engage on
  • Considering others’ privacy before posting online

Digital Ethics

     Digital ethics refers to using the digital ethics standards and morals to engage in online settings through a social worker code of ethics lens (Joiner, 2019).

How it is used:

  • Gathering information about a client electronically
  • Assessing client records remotely
  • Developing social media policies
  • Discarding outdated electronic devices
  • GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation)

Digital Citizenship

     Digital citizenship refers to the responsible use of technology by anyone and the norms of behavior regarding active technology use (Zook, 2019; Simsek & Simsek, 2013).

How it is used:

  • Sharing, thinking, and co-creating online
  • Understanding how the internet works
  • Practicing digital wellness
  • Understanding user data
  • Learning responsible social media use
  • Can be referred to as the educational pedagogy of digital learning in K-12 schools

Digital Empathy

     Digital empathy is defined as the traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications (Jiang & Gao, 2020).

How it is used:

  • Understanding that you are only seeing one side of the story online
  • Critically thinking about how viewing or engaging in online bullying, online aggression, or online violence makes you and others feel

Digital Resilience

     Digital resilience is defined as withstanding and overcoming negative experiences and pressures in online settings (Sage et al., 2021).

How it is used:

  • Critically thinking about what you are engaging in online and how it is making you feel
  • Knowing what to do if something wrong happens online
  • Learning from experiences of being online and changing behaviors

Practice: What additional examples would you identify in each category from your own practice or life?

Bridge to Social Work Practice

Case Study: TikTok

     What if you are using a device that has client contacts stored in it and you use that same device to log onto TikTok? TikTok connects to contacts stored on the device to filter an algorithm to view videos created from “your contacts.” TikTok and other apps like this present a different way to handle social media vs. the more traditional apps like Facebook and Instagram, where you must accept a contact to be connected in the app. This presents a scenario that requires you to consider technology skills such as new media literacy, digital ethics, and digital responsibility.

Things to consider:

  • What do you do if you accidentally stumble upon your client’s TikTok? 
  • What do you say or not say to your client? 
  • What should be included in your social media informed consent or policy? (Here’s a step by step guide to developing one.)

Case Study: Hashtags

     Hashtags are a great way to stay connected to current trends and new information on social media apps such as Twitter. But it is important to understand what hashtags stand for and are used most for. This requires us to dive deep into our new media literacy skills! For example, many social workers use SW for short, but on social media, so do Star Wars fans and sex workers. So before you use #SW for social work-related topics, it is important to understand that others may think you are referring to Star Wars or sex work. Most social workers use the hashtag #SocialWork or #SWTech to differentiate from other #SW topics. New Media Literacy tip: Explore hashtags to see how others are using them before you add one to your posts! For Twitter, the Tweetdeck website is a great place to follow several hashtags or creators at one time.

Case Study: Client Biometrics 

     You are working at a large government agency, and the administrative and IT teams just announced they will be purchasing a new component of the current case management platform that will gather and store client biometrics, specifically, facial scans using facial recognition technology. They tout that this will increase staff productivity and client access to records while decreasing client fraud across services and that this is the natural next step, since they already collect client fingerprint biometrics. How would you react to this announcement? How might this go against the NASW Code of Ethics? How might either of these surveillance technologies harm the client? What power and influence could you have at any level of this organization to question, resist, or help find equitable solutions to maintain client privacy?

Tools and Next Steps on Your Social Work Tech Journey

     As we near the end of our winding map of terms, tech skills, and examples, you are hopefully recognizing the many skills you already have and uncovering areas that you and your clients might need for the ever-evolving tech journey. As the final pit stop, below are just a few recommendations to stay equipped.


Atske, S., & Perrin, A. (2022, August 25). Home broadband adoption, computer ownership vary by race, ethnicity in the U.S. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/16/home-broadband-adoption-computer-ownership-vary-by-race-ethnicity-in-the-u-s/ 

Carrington, V. (2018). The changing landscape of literacies: Big data and algorithms. Digital Culture & Education, 10(1), 67-76.  https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/68380/1/Carrington.pdf 

Considine, D., Horton, J., & Moorman, G. (2009). Teaching and reaching the millennial generation through media literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(6), 471-481.

Cummings, S. (2018, October 2). Social Work Tech Notes—Social work and future technology: What can be automated, will be. The New Social Worker. https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/technology-articles/social-work-tech-notes-social-work-and-future-technology-what-can-be-automated-will-be/

Goldkind, L., Wolf, L., & Jones, J. (2016). Late adapters? How social workers acquire knowledge and sklls about technology tools. Jounal of Technology in Human Services, 34(4), 338-358. https://doi.org/10.1080/15228835.2016.1250027

Jiang, L., & Gao, J. (2020). Fostering EFL learners’ digital empathy through multimodal composing. RELC journal, 51(1), 70-85.

Joiner, J. M. (2019). Digital ethics in social work education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 39(4-5), 361-373.

National Association of Social Workers. (2021). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. NASW Press.  https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Perrin, A. (2021, June 3). Mobile technology and home broadband 2021. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/06/03/mobile-technology-and-home-broadband-2021/

Perron, B., Taylor, H., Glass, J., & Margerum-Leys, J. (2010). Information and communication technologies in social work. Advances in Social Work, 11(2), 67-81.

Reisdorf, B. C., Triwibowo, W., & Yankelevich, A. (2020). Laptop or bust: How lack of technology affects student achievement. American Behavioral Scientist64(7), 927-949.

Sage, M., Randolph, K., Fitch, D., & Sage, T. (2021). Internet use and resilience in adolescents: A systematic review. Research on Social Work Practice, 31(2), 171-179. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731520967409

Simsek, E., & Simsek, A. (2013). New literacies for digital citizenship. Contemporary Educational Technology, 4(2), 126-137.

Trier, M., Kundisch, D., Beverungen, D., Müller, O., Schryen, G., & Mirbabaie, M. (2022). Digital responsibility. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4026082

Young, J. A. (2015). Assessing new media literacies in social work education: The development and validation of a comprehensive assessment instrument. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 33(1), 72-86. https://doi.org/10.1080/15228835.2014.998577

Zook, C. (2019, December 10). What is digital citizenship & how do you teach it? Applied Educational Systems. https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-is-digital-citizenship

Alexis Speck Glennon, LCSW-R, is a Doctor of Social Work candidate at the University at Buffalo and Core Faculty at Union Institute and University. Her research area is digital literacy skills for social workers and the social work profession’s role in tech justice. She also loves to connect via Twitter  @alexis_glennon to keep the #SWTECH conversation going.

Julie Muñoz-Nájar, MSW, LSW, is Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she teaches both field and technology courses. She is also an anticipatory social work Fellow at the Social Work Health Futures Lab. Join Julie @JulieMunozNajar on Twitter.

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