Social Media and Professional Ethics

Access to the Internet is everywhere. Communication and privileged information is now at our fingertips. Do we as professionals have a responsibility to help our industry by establishing a Code of Ethics?

For example, within the behavioral healthcare industry, social media has created new ways in which professionals and their clients can interact. Is it harmful or even appropriate for a therapist and a client to share the types of information that are posted on Social Networking Sites?

Let’s start by defining what the term social media means. The general definition used by Merriam-Webster dictionary is “forms of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and micro-blogging) through which users creates online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos).”

Social media is different from traditional media. 

  • Traditional media is one way communication.  Social media is two-way communication, so it’s very important that businesses monitor what customers are saying on line.
  • People can instantly share your message with their network who then can share it with their network thus, creating what every social media marketing person wants: a “viral message”.
  • Social media operates in real time.
  • Traditional media is polished and managed. Social media is quick and most times less polished.
  • Social media is dependent on “user generated content”.

Today social media sites utilize more of the internet than any other type of site.  According to Reynolds, “the total time spent on social media in the U.S. across PC and mobile devices increased by 37 percent to 121 billion minutes in July 2012 compared to 88 billion minutes in July 2011” (Reynolds, 2013).

According to Reynolds…

 “Social media technologies take on many different forms including magazines, Internet forums, weblogs, social blogs, micro-blogging, wikis, social networks, podcasts, photographs or pictures, video, rating and social bookmarking. Technologies include: blogs, picture-sharing, vlogs, wall-postings, music-sharing, crowdsourcing and voice over IP, to name a few. Many of these services can be integrated via social network aggregation platforms” (Reynolds, 2013).”

Why is social media important?

With more than 1 billion monthly users, Facebook is the current front runner for social media sites. Today the average Facebook user is connected to 31,000 individuals within their “extended network” (Work 4, 2013). To further exemplify the role now played by social media, the health care industry has begun to recognize the potential influence that social media now plays in marketing their products.  According to a 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) HRI Social Media survey, social media as a marketing strategy should be heeded.

  • 41% of consumers said social media tools influenced their choice of a specific hospital, medical facility or doctor
  • 34% said it would influence their decision about taking a certain medication
  • 32% said it would affect their choice of a health insurance plan

In 2012 IBM systems conducted their own social media survey and found supporting evidence for social media as a “business intelligence strategy.”

  • 91% of consumers like to share their brand experience with others.
  • 61% of consumers rely on user reviews for making purchase decisions
  • 81% of consumers have received purchase advice via social media
  • 74% say social media has influenced their buying decisions
  • 90% of consumers trust the recommendations of friends and family.

From a business perspective the value of a Facebook “like” is pretty subjective and very dependent on the industry.  According to Brad Chacos of Productivity and Social “a Facebook follower could be worth nothing at all, as little as $3.60, as much as $22.93, exactly $136.38 more than a non-follower, or a whopping $214.81 for a nonprofit organization” (Chocas, 2012).

In part because of the growing popularity of social media, the Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (“HHS”) has modified the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) marketing definition. In summary, the concluding rule outlines ”marketing” to mean any communication about a product or service that encourages the individual receiving the communication to purchase the product or service.

Is anyone proposing ethical rules for social media?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has stepped up and established a social media policy.  However, they designed their policy for their APA designated forums, not as a general social media guideline.  Many of the rules are good common sense but the policy reads more like a legal disclaimer than an ethics protocol (APA, 2013).

A quick Google search for “Social Worker and Social Media” will generate hundreds of links with the vast majority that I explored dedicated to generic Human Resources policies designed for restricting the use of social media while at work.  That’s a losing strategy.  While IT staff can prevent or monitor utilization of social media sites on office equipment the large majority of social media enthusiasts now access those sites via smart phones and mobile devices. The 2013 “National Business Ethics Survey of Social Networkers,” found 75 percent of social networkers spend time on these platforms while at work, and 28 percent spend an hour or more on social networks each day (Bascuas, 2013).

In her September 2013 article titled “Ethics Corner: Beyond the Friend Request,” Kathryn Chernack, DSW says, “Social Media is not a term specifically mentioned in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics.”  Chernack qualifies her statement by adding that the “Code does provide a useful guide for making ethical decisions when using social media.”  In her closing remarks, Chernack references the standards detailed in the NASW and Association for Social Work Boards Standards for Technology in Social Work, which states the need for technical competence in social work. Concerning social media, Chernack summarizes her assessment by saying that Social Workers have a role in maximizing the benefits of using social media in their worksite by knowing how and most importantly,” knowing when not to use them.”

In my opinion we clearly need dialogue and review of the role and scope played by social media. This dialogue and review should lead to the development of a social media code of ethics. The evidence is clear that social media is here to stay and that it already has significant influence on the health care industry.  So I ask you again…. Do we as professionals have a responsibility to help our professions establish a Code of Ethics?

About the Author

Jerry Landers is the Vice President of Business Development for Aspire Indiana. While the beliefs and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mr. Landers you can learn more about community mental health and how it intersects with business and media at


American Psychological Association (2013), APA Social Media/Forum Policy, Retrieved Sept 20 from

Jason Falls, (August 2009), Why Social Media Demands Professional Ethics, Retrieved Sept 19, 2013 from

Chris Borgan,(October 2008), The Ethics Imperative in Social Media, Retrieved Sept 19, 2013 from

Calgore (Sep 2012), Social Media and Professional Ethics, Retrieved Sept 19, 2013 from

Mashable (March , 2012), Ethics and Social Media: Where Should You Draw The Line?, Retrieved Sept 19, 2013 from

CVynthia Reynolds (September 2013), What is Social Media, Retrieved Sept 20, 2013 from

Work 4, (2013), The joy of Facebook Recruiting, Whitepaper

Brad Chacos (Oct 2012), What’s a Facebook Like worth, Retrieved September 23, 2013 from

Katie Bascuas, (July 2013) New Ethics Study Shows Two Sides of Social Media Coin, Retrieved September 23, 2013 from

Kathryn Chernack, (September 2013), Ethics Corner: Beyond the Friend Request-Other Ethical Challenges Posed by Social Media, Retrieved September 23, 2013 from

About jerrylanders

Executive Director for Aspire Indiana Health and Vice President for Aspire Indiana. Doctorial Student at Columbia Southern University studying business. Married and father of three children. I blog about mental health, business, social media and how all three intersect.
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