Recognition for social connection online is important

Social connections are important, for example, to combat polarization. At the same time, we are facing digitalization and globalization. How do Social Work students connect with others? What role do social media play in society and how can social workers make use of this?

Studenten buiten mobiel selfie man vrouw

Carolien Terhorst teaches International Social Work at HAN University of Applied Sciences and is in the final stages of her PhD research. She is affiliated with the Research Center on Strengthening Social Quality. The center is committed to fostering connection in society, for example, to prevent polarization.

Shift online due to Covid

Digitalization and globalization are developments that affect social work. These processes are changing the way people connect and engage in society. Carolien explains: “Responding to these developments can be quite a struggle. I found it interesting to delve into this topic and decided to pursue PhD research. That didn't go as planned at first, because of the Covid outbreak. I had just started my first study, which focused on students and how they navigate between the different “worlds” they find themselves in. In this study, I wanted to discover how people connect with each other and with society. My plan was to literally shadow Social Work students.And then suddenly everything shut down. Students’ lives shifted to the online world even more than before. This forced me to change the way I did my research. I joined classes online and kept track of social media apps. I collected interesting data and also discovered that there was very little awareness among social workers of this major shift among students.”

Portretfoto Carolien Terhorst

Social media scorned

In total, Carolien's PhD research consists of 3 studies, which she expects to finish in about a year (in 2025). This January she published an article in a professional journal showing how Social Work students express and validate their civic engagement. Carolien specifically chose these students for her research because they are young and choose modern ways of connecting. Social Work students are also preparing for a professional future in which they will encourage that connection.

“Recognition of online connection and of social media is clearly needed. Because although these students appear to connect with each other primarily through informal and short-term communication, e.g. Instagram and TikTok, social media are generally scorned. The students in my research don’t see such communication as a form of engagement, nor do they see being proficient on social media as a skill. Recognition is needed of the role of social media in today's society. The question that comes next is how to use it within social work. We have already seen the possibilities, for example in activist movements like #metoo. I find it interesting to see what is needed to take advantage of this globalized and digital world,” Carolien says.

Even if someone is less able to participate in society, you can reach them online. As a social worker, you can be a positive influence online.

Loads of opportunities for social workers

Meanwhile, Carolien has been working on her 2nd study. Here she focuses mainly on youth workers and how they are already using social media in their work. “It turns out they’re a little further along in this than other social workers. Often young themselves, they experiment professionally online and connect with young people there. This is important because their target audience spends a lot of time there. There are still all kinds of opportunities to work inclusively and connect online. Even if someone is less able to participate in society, you can reach them online. As a social worker, you can be a positive influence online,” Carolien explains.

So how do you ensure that social workers are confident enough to actually do something with social media? Carolien: “So that starts with recognizing the important role it plays in society. It also requires attention in the Social Work curriculum. It’s good to emphasize the positive skills of students. My research shows that they themselves see it not only as  pure leisure, but even as a waste of time. I think a collaboration between young and old helps us move forward. As a professional, you need to know where you fall short, and you can benefit from the knowledge of others.”

Using students’ skills

The use of social media is still totally new for many social workers and also daunting. “So we need to guide them. What do you post and with which goal? What style of language do you choose and how do you deal with pictures? Education plays an important role in this. That is why, as I complete my PhD research, I am committed to integrating my research findings into the Social Work curriculum. I want to develop the sequel with students in order to utilize their skills. I am also convinced that policy should not always be made by adults. It would be nice to make strides within education; I still have another year to complete my PhD. I’m already in close contact with the professional practice of youth workers and would like to show what is possible, for example, at conferences.”