Social workers targeted by ‘false claims’ and other threats, study finds

Online abuse and harassment affected 22% of social workers and probation officers

Almost a quarter of social workers have experienced abuse or threats online, with those in the child and family area most likely to be targeted, according to new research.

The study, published on Thursday, shows that in almost half of instances, the person posting an abusive message was an adult service user, either past or present, and in more than a quarter of incidents, it was a family member of a service user.

Some of those interviewed for the University College Cork research gave examples of the abuse. One said: “Fake profile set up in my name including my photo and phone number describing me as available for a good time or words to that effect along with photos of men in underwear.”

Another said: “Threats made not using my name but saying the SW [social worker] that took your child into care, know where they live, put a tracker on their car, know when they get up and got to bed.”


Other examples included targeted abuse about social work in general, false allegations, screenshots and homophobic slurs.

The research, carried out by a team led by Kenneth Burns in UCC’s School of Applied Social Studies, also shows that the abuse left some social workers feeling threatened, worried, frightened and annoyed, while the vast majority chose non-engagement as the response to what had happened to them.

Findings from the research, which is titled Social Media and Online Abuse and Harassment in Social Work in Ireland, was presented at a webinar in UCC on Thursday and included input from 379 eligible participants, the vast majority of whom (92 per cent) use social media.

Of social workers and probation officers included in the study, 22 per cent said they had experienced online abuse and harassment.

Of those who experienced online abuse, most were women and aged between 25 and 54. Those working in child and family social work are far more likely to have experienced it than those in other disciplines, such as disability services, probation or mental health.

A variety of online platforms were used to abuse and harass social workers, led by Facebook, then email and Twitter, the study found.

Dr Burns, whose research team included Olwen Halvey, Fiachra Ó Súilleabháin and Elaine O’Callaghan, said it was positive that Tusla was already responding to the issue – including contacting social media companies demanding they do more about abusive posts online.

As well as calling for platforms to take effective action, the study identified a need for line managers and organisations to improve their response particularly as, due to the nature of the work, social workers often have to continue working with those who are targeting them for abuse.

Vivian Geiran, chair of the Irish Association of Social Workers, said it was important to acknowledge the issue of online abuse and harassment while also accepting that it was not so widespread that every social worker would experience it.