Clinical Social Work Journal

, Volume 40, Issue 3, pp 277–286 | Cite as

“It just crept in”: The Digital Age and Implications for Social Work Practice

  • Faye Mishna
  • Marion Bogo
  • Jennifer Root
  • Jami-Leigh Sawyer
  • Mona Khoury-Kassabri
Original Paper


Today’s generation of youth and adults relies on communication technologies for entertainment, information, and social connections and more and more, for personal help and advice. With cyber technology having permeated the ways in which individuals seek support for a wide range of issues, the purpose of this paper is to report on a study that examined practitioners’ experiences and views of whether and how online communication has entered their face-to-face practice and of the implication for the therapeutic work. Using qualitative methodology, 15 social work practitioners participated in focus groups and interviews exploring their perspectives about the impact of cyber technology on their traditional face-to-face social work practice. The prevailing finding was that cyber communication has dramatically changed the nature of professional relationships. This key finding was supported by four major inter-related themes arising from the data: (1) client driven practice; (2) Pandora’s box; (3) ethical grey zone; and (4) permeable boundaries. Implications for practice are provided.


Cyber technology in therapy Cyber communication in traditional social work Cyber technology and ethics Online technology and social work practice 


  1. Abroms, L., Gill, J., Windsor, R., & Simons-Morton, B. (2009). A process evaluation of email counseling for smoking cessation in college students. Journal of Smoking Cessation, 4, 26–33.Google Scholar
  2. Barak, A., Klein, B., & Proudfoot, J. G. (2009). Defining internet-supported therapeutic interventions. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 4–17.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bogo, M. (2006). Social work practice: Concepts processes and interviewing. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bradley, L. J., & Hendricks, B. (2009). Email and ethical issues. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 17(3), 267–271.Google Scholar
  5. Bradley, L. J., Hendricks, B., Lock, R., Whiting, P. P., & Parr, G. (2011). E-mail communication: Issues for mental health counsellors. Journal of Mental Health Counselling, 33(11), 67–79.Google Scholar
  6. Carlbring, P., Furmark, T., & Steczko, J. (2006). An open study of internet-based bibliography with minimal therapist contact via email for social phobia. Clinical Psychologist, 10, 30–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cassidy, W., Jackson, M., & Brown, K. (2009). Sticks and stones can break my bones, but how can pixels hurt me? Students’ experiences with cyber-bullying. School Psychology International, 30(4), 383–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chester, A., & Glass, C. A. (2006). Online counseling: A descriptive analysis of therapy services on the Internet. British Journal of Guidance and Counseling, 34, 145–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cook, J., & Doyle, C. (2002). Working alliance in online therapy as compared to face-to-face therapy: Preliminary results. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 5, 95–105.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Facebook. (2009). Statistics. Retrieved from
  11. Finn, J. (2006). An exploratory study of email use by direct service social workers. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 24(4), 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gabbard, G. O., Kassaw, K. A., & Perez-Garcia, G. (2011). Professional boundaries in the era of the internet. Academic Psychiatry, 35(3), 168–174.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Glasgeen, K., & Campbell, M. (2009). The use of online counselling within an Australian secondary school setting: A practitioner’s viewpoint. Counselling Psychology Review, 24(2), 42–51.Google Scholar
  14. Google. (2011a, November 14). Site profile for Facebook. In Doubleclick Ad Planner by Google. Retrieved from
  15. Google. (2011b, November 14). Site profile for Myspace. In Doubleclick Ad Planner by Google. Retrieved from
  16. Google. (2011c, November 14). Site profile for Twitter. In Doubleclick Ad Planner by Google. Retrieved from
  17. Hanley, T. (2009). The working alliance in online therapy with young people: Preliminary findings. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 37(3), 257–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. HHS. (2003). Summary of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. In the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from
  19. HHS. (n.d.). Health Information Privacy. In the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from
  20. Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  21. Huang, M. P., & Alessi, N. (1996). The internet and the future of psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 153, 861–869.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Jones, S., & Fox, S. (2009). Generations online in 2009. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved December 6, 2009, from Data memo.
  23. Kaynay, J. M., & Yelsma, P. (2000). Displacement effects of online media in the socio-technical contexts of households. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 4(2), 215–229.Google Scholar
  24. King, R., Bambling, M., Reid, W., & Thomas, I. (2006). Telephone and online counseling for young people: A naturalistic comparison of session outcome, session impact and therapeutic alliance. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 6(3), 175–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kowalski, R., Limber, S., & Agatston, P. W. (2008). Cyber bullying. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kraus, R. (2004). Ethical and legal considerations for providers of mental health services online. In R. Kraus, J. Zack, & G. Stricker (Eds.), Online counseling: A handbook for mental health professionals (pp. 123–144). San Diego: Elsevier Academic.Google Scholar
  27. Lehavot, K., Barnett, J. E., & Powers, D. (2010). Psychotherapy, professional relationships, and ethical considerations in the MySpace generation. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(2), 160–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social Media and young adults. Retrieved February 3, 2010 from
  29. Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., Zickuhr, K., & Rainie, L. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites: How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.Google Scholar
  30. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  31. Merriam, S. B. (2002). Qualitative research in practice: Examples for discussion and analysis. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  32. Middleton, C., Veenhof, B., & Leith, J. (2010). Intensity of Internet use in Canada: Understanding different types of users (Business Special Surveys and Technology Statistics Division Working Papers 88F0006X, no. 2). Retrieved July 23, 2011, from
  33. Midkiff, D. M., & Joseph Wyatt, W. (2008). Ethical issues in the provision of online mental health services (Etherapy). Journal of Technology in Human Services, 26, 310–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mishna, F., Cook, C., Gadalla, T., Daciuk, J., & Solomon, S. (2010). Cyber bullying behaviour among middle and high school students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(3), 362–374.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Murphy, L. J., & Mitchell, D. L. (1998). When writing helps to heal: E-mail as therapy. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 26, 21–32.Google Scholar
  36. NASW/ASWB. (2005). NASW and ASWB standards for technology and social work practice. In NASW Press. Retrieved from
  37. Norcross, J. C., Hedges, M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2002). The face of 2010: A delphi poll on the future of psychotherapy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 3, 316–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ontario. (2010). Personal Health Information Protection Act, 2004. In ServiceOntario e-Laws. Retrieved from
  39. Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Dickinson, W. B., Leech, N. L., & Zoran, A. G. (2009). A qualitative framework for collecting and analyzing data in focus group research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(3), 1–21.Google Scholar
  40. Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  41. Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.Google Scholar
  42. Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2009). Demographics of Internet users. Retrieved from
  43. Prado, S., & Meyer, S. B. (2004). Evaluation of the working alliance of an asynchronous therapy via the internet. Sao Paulo: University of Sao Paulo. Retrieved October 24, 2008, from
  44. Rafferty, J., & Steyaert, J. (2009). Social work in the digital age. British Journal of Social Work, 39, 589–598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Reese, R., Conoley, C., & Brossart, D. (2002). Effectiveness of telephone counselling: A field based investigation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49(2), 233–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8-18 year olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved June 5, 2010, from:
  47. Robson, D., & Robson, M. (1998). Intimacy and computer communication. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 26(1), 33–42.Google Scholar
  48. Rochlen, A., Zack, J., & Speyer, C. (2004). Online therapy: Review of relevant definitions, debates, and current empirical support. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60, 269–283.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Santhiveeran, J. (2009). Compliance of social work e-therapy websites to the NASW Code of Ethics. Social Work in Health Care, 48(1), 1–13.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Schrock, A., & Boyd, D. (2008). Online threats to youth: Solicitation, harassment, and problematic content: Literature review prepared for the internet safety technical task force. Retrieved March 25, 2009 from
  51. Smith, S. D., & Reynolds, C. (2002). Cyber-psychotherapy. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, 5, 20–22.Google Scholar
  52. Social Network Stats. (2008) Social networking site usage: Visitors, members, page views, and engagement by the numbers in 2008. Retrieved from
  53. Stamm, B. H. (1998). Clinical applications of telehealth in mental health care. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 29, 536–542.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory, procedures and techniques. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  55. Whitaker, T., Torrico Meruvia, R., & Jones, A. (2010). Child welfare social workers’ attitudes toward mobile technology tools: Is there a generation gap? Washington, DC: NASW.Google Scholar
  56. Wright, J. (2002). Online counselling: Learning from writing therapy. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 30(3), 285–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Faye Mishna
    • 1
  • Marion Bogo
    • 1
  • Jennifer Root
    • 1
  • Jami-Leigh Sawyer
    • 1
  • Mona Khoury-Kassabri
    • 2
  1. 1.Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social WorkTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social WelfareThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

Personalised recommendations