Challenges in the Social Work Field

Note: This is an invited post by May (pseudonym), an experienced social worker in the field.

Social workers are primarily concerned about the well-being and functioning of individuals and families, and work to empower the individuals to be better equipped to handle their issues.  In Singapore, social workers are employed in various settings, which include youth, family, prisons, hospitals, and special needs.  At the same time, they are also employed to look at shaping larger level policies, and how these policies are implemented to the ground level.  Social workers are very often associated with being volunteers - as being people with huge hearts and "give people a fish".

Societal views of the work as a social worker
However, how our society views this profession is an important perspective to think about, which is something that isn't always talked about, even in school.  Why is this so?  The people who will end up studying and aspiring to be social workers are from, well, that same society.  Acceptance of the society's views is a mindset that will challenge the student's perspective as well.

Being the "quick fix" to clients' issues
On a day-to-day basis, social workers face unreasonable demands  -  as there is an expectation that they are the "quick fix" solutions.  "Quick fix"'solutions administered for clients are almost always finite, with a stringent assessment process, and an interim solution to tie over a period of time where they are expected to still work on being more self-reliant, which inevitably frustrates people who view 'help' as an instant solution.

What social workers really do
What social workers actually do is to look at how various systems in the environment affect people, help people navigate these systems, as well as look into how systems can be improved.  This is done with a core value of empathetic and intentional listening, in a non-judgmental and objective way.  Advocacy for clients that are vulnerable or unable to access resources and systems is also an integral part of the work.  As with any other job, social workers deal with disagreements, emotional upheavals, expectations from various people, and have to always be mindful of their clinical interventions.

Staying motivated at work
Having to deal with so many concurrent issues is virtually impossible to do alone, and the concepts of individual and group supervisions and team work help to provide support to the social worker in managing dynamics, clinical interventions, and the emotions evoked when dealing with a multitude of issues.  This support from peers and supervisors is very helpful in motivating the growth of the social worker, regardless of years of seniority and experience.  It is important for social workers to keep up with positive attitudes and work hand in hand with different parties to build up a better community  -  and to constantly keep themselves motivated and purpose driven, to maintain themselves in this profession.

Jerry O.: Effect of Social Media on Suicides

The number of suicides that occur worldwide stands at almost 800,000 yearly, making it the 17th leading cause of death in 2015 (World Health Organisation, 2015) and with the increase in the publicity of suicides, it is now a major global health issue.  The relationship between suicide and the internet and in particular social media is very complex and various researchers have tried to find out if social media hinders or encourages death by suicide.  Studies have shown that even though there is no direct link between social media and suicide, there is some degree of interaction between them.

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The social media is a hub of information and one can easily find information on any subject simply by typing the search words and suicide is not an exception.  There is a huge repository of information on suicide on the internet and there are many pro-suicide chat rooms and forums which provide very detailed information about suicide and even the methods that can be used.  There are so many ways by which social media can contribute to an increase in the tendency to commit suicide.

The nature of human interactions is such that the chunk of our deductions and understanding of people’s behaviour comes from things they do not say.  That is to say human communication relies more on nonverbal communication that the actual exchange of words.  The heart and soul of our interactions are the gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and posture and so on.  We are able to fully understand what a person is saying by comparing the words they use with the nonverbal signs that we observe, we can tell if a person is excited, sad, hiding something or if they are relaxed.

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On social media however, these nonverbal signs are replaced by smileys and emoticons so they may as well be absent because you cannot actually tell that the person sending you a grinning smiley is actually grinning, for all you know they may be wearing a scowl on their face.  Social media gives people the opportunity to be anything they want to be; they may be depressed in real life and be very chatty online, they may be crying and be using all the happy emoticons and smiley.  So, unless a person opens up to you and shares their pain you will not know they have any unlike in face-to-face interactions where you can pick up that someone is being bothered by something and they are more likely to open up if someone asks them.  Likewise, there is no way to tell if a person is contemplating suicide via social media interactions unless they tell you because online interactions are grossly lacking in the nonverbal cues we already mentioned.

Social Media Influencing Suicides

Another problem with social media that can increase suicidal behaviour is cyber harassment and cyber bullying.  When various internet media are used to intentionally and continuously harass or threaten a child or teenager or even an adult, it is termed cyber bullying, cyber harassment or cyber stalking and it is a very serious problem.  The media used to perpetrate these acts include text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail and social networking sites where people get “trolled” maliciously.  These acts place negative pressure on the recipients thereby intensifying their lonely feelings, hopelessness, instability and isolation which is made worse in people who are already under intense psychological or emotional stressors and increases their risk to commit suicide.  A study by Hinduja and Patchin (2010) showed that middle school children who had been cyber bullied were two times more likely to attempt suicide that others who were not.  It also showed that offenders of cyber bullying were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who were neither targets of nor offenders of cyber bullying.

Furthermore, there have been reports of strangers who met on bulletin boards and chat rooms or forums deciding to commit suicide on the same day.  This is called "Cybersuicide pact" and the first documented case was reported in 2000 in Japan where the suicide rate is still on the increase.  This problem is a major topic for discussion on the internet and it is suspected that its impact in precipitating or encouraging suicides lie in the fact that people of like minds are able to share their stories and then push each other in the direction they want. These boards also provide information on the various methods that people can use to commit suicide thus making it much easier for people to kill themselves.

Another point worthy of note is the media contagion effect.  Suicide contagion refers to a state in which suicidal behaviour spontaneously sweeps across a particular group of people and this affects people who are less than 25 years old more than other ages.  When certain people are exposed to information about suicide through any means, this may influence their decision to kill themselves.  In some cases, chat rooms and bulletin boards create memorial pages for those who die by suicide and for the impressionable minds;  this may push them towards committing suicide.  The reason being that users also want to be idolized by those who had already committed suicide and so they get a few minutes of fame even if they are dead.  This problem has more deep seated psychological problems that are merely augmented by the social media.

Contrariwise, social media also contributes in some ways to the prevention of suicide.  There are social networking pages that provide interactions between people with similar stories to help prevent suicides, provide help lines and provide awareness about suicide prevention.  Some of these pages include the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which can both be found on Facebook.  There are also several groups on Twitter and even blogs that are dedicated to providing information vital in preventing suicides.  Also, Google and Yahoo also have features that serve as proactive suicide prevention links; when a person uses a search word that indicates suicidal intent, links are displayed at the top of the result page about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  These features can provide help to a person who is contemplating suicide.
In Singapore, Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) is the main suicide prevention centre which helps people in crisis, thinking of suicide or affected by suicide. Their number is 1800-221 4444 (24 hours).

World Suicide Prevention Day 2017 (by Samaritans of Singapore)

The research into the role of social media in pro-suicide behavior does not have enough data to draw a clear-cut relationship although evidence suggests there is a link and the whole world is beginning to sit up and take notice.  Therefore, it should be the responsibility of every user of social media to ensure that they do what they can to prevent suicide by sharing information on suicide prevention help lines on their time lines and when people post contents that  may suggest that they are contemplating suicide, it should be taken seriously.

For more posts on Social Media on SG Psych Stuff:
SGPsychStud:  Networking on Social Media
Jerry O.:  The Influence of Social Media on Behaviour
Jerry O.:  Why People Are Into Social Media

Jerry O.: Why People Are Into Social Media

It is no longer news that social media has become the major means by which several people, organizations and even the government share ideas, messages and information.  The total number of users of various platforms like Facebook, SnapChat, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Google+ are in their billions;  throw in the less known platforms, and the number becomes even more staggering.  This makes it clear that social media is actually everywhere (where there are no internet restrictions) and it does not look like it will be going away any time soon, if at all.
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The Appeal of Social Media

The major appeal of social media is the perceived anonymity or security it offers to the users, thus they can say whatever they want to say without the risk of being judged; at least that was how it started out.  With the advent of cyber bullying, one cannot really guarantee what can be said that would not attract a backlash from other users, both the strangers and the non-strangers.  On the subject of security and anonymity, the appeal lies in the fact that all forms of interaction via social media are virtual.  This means that the intrinsic properties of a real-life experience are retained but the complexities that accompany face-to-face interactions are excluded.  Thus, the average person can connect with their friends and colleagues without having to go through the “stress” of tasking the brain while interpreting their body languages, or walking into emotional mine traps that are unavoidable at a large gathering.  Social media facilitates interactions that require less of us and so, we love it.

The sheer size of the social media platforms is another factor that has contributed to their popularity and their sustenance.  The number of users signing up on these platforms is continually on the increase and even though it consumes a lot of time and attention, users have no hang-ups coming back time and time again until it becomes integrated into their routine and they just cannot go a day without social media.  In addition, many businesses float their merchandise and services online before becoming a brick and mortar business.  Social media has given many small businesses the needed edge to compete with leading names and brands simply because it helped them to relate and connect with their customers.

Big Think:  How Online Advertising Is Tricking Your Thoughts, Attitudes, and Beliefs | Tristan Harris 

Neurochemicals Involved in Social Media Usage

In an interesting twist, there is some scientific backing to the reason why social media has become ubiquitous in its reach and this can be found in hormones.  Yes!  It is very plausible that social media biopsychology exists and it is based on two chemicals produced by the brain: oxytocin and dopamine.  They are two of the many neurotransmitters produced by the brain on the go and they have very specific functions in the human brain.
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Oxytocin is quite aptly described as the “love chemical” because it has been discovered that its production increases when a person feels loved due to the actions of other people.  So, when people fall in love or on their wedding day, their oxytocin levels are usually pretty high and this same spike in oxytocin has been observed when people spend about ten minutes on social media, and they absorb all the goodwill and love being sent their way whether through the number of likes on their pictures, their number of followers or even positive comments on their posts.  In addition, they experience feelings of satisfaction, trust, love, and reduced stress levels - all features that comes with oxytocin and the social media and feelings that people love to experience.
Dopamine, when produced, stimulates the desire to find pleasure and satisfy wants.  This hormone has also been tied in with addiction based on the fact that the person or user as it were, seeks to maintain and sustain the pleasure induced when it is released.  The desire to achieve the pleasure threshold is very strong and so people will keep doing those things and the desire will keep increasing and so the cycle continues.  This scenario also applies to social media and this is why it becomes increasingly difficult for people to resist posting pictures on Instagram for likes or Tweeting for retweets.
By taking a cursory look at both hormones, it becomes very obvious that social media comes with cuddly and great feelings that everyone wants and it is next to impossible to not desire more of it.  Little wonder then that social media has permeated the very core of human existence and it is one phenomenon that will not fade away with time.
For more posts on Social Media on SG Psych Stuff:
SGPsychStud: Networking on Social Media
Jerry O.: The Influence of Social Media on Behaviour

What is a good psychometric test?

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What is a good psychometric test?  What conditions are required for a test to be considered "good"?
I asked myself the above questions when I was doing my Honours dissertation.  We have learnt in our research methods classes that a good psychometric test has validity and reliability.  This is very important as your data collection methods will affect your results collected. and within your data collection methods, the psychological test used is one of the important components to be considered.

So I went to read up on validity and reliability, and stumbled upon this website: Social Research Methods Knowledge Base.  After extensive reading and researching on this website and others, I concluded that as a student, it is very important to know the different types of validity and reliability:

Types of validity (from Social Research Methods Knowledge Base Measurement Validity Types)
  • Face validity
  • Content validity
  • Predictive validity
  • Concurrent validity
  • Convergent validity
  • Discriminant validity
Types of reliability (from Social Research Methods Knowledge Base Types of Reliability)
  • Inter-rater reliability
  • Test-retest reliability
  • Parallel-forms reliability
  • Internal consistency reliability
Why do we need to know the psychometric properties of the tests that we are performing with our participants or doing to find out our own personal traits?
Remember Issues with Horoscopes and Some Personality tests??  As psychological researchers, we have to make that the tests used are measuring what they are supposed to measure and also producing consistent results over time, even before we use them.  This is to ensure that we are able to "trust" the test.
So how do we make sure that the tests used have been validated for their psychometric properties?
This can be easily done by researching on the test regarding their validity and reliability properties. One good example is the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS), where different research have been done and published to demonstrate its psychometric strengths.

This way we know that we can "trust" the test, use it with confidence, and be convinced with the results produced, as we know that the test used is valid and reliable.

Issues with Horoscopes and Some Personality tests

Which horoscope are you?  Would you read the predictions for your horoscope for the upcoming week, month, or year?
Do you believe it?
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When I was in my teens, I used to love reading my weekly and annual horoscopes to find out my upcoming fortunes or mishaps in the near future.  Some similar phrases include those in the below paragraph: 
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.  You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.  You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.  While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.  Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.  At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.  You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.  You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof.  You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.  At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.  Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.  Security is one of your major goals in life.
If you find most of the paragraph congruent with your life, you may be vulnerable to the Barnum / Forer effect.  According to Wikipedia, this effect is "common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them but that are, in fact, vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people."  The above paragraph is also based from the same link as the definition.

These statements about your fortune or personalities tend to be very generalised, but yet at the same time very convincing.  Along with the cognitive bias of confirmation bias (tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions), there is a high chance that the information will be perceived in a personalised manner by the reader.
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To reduce these effects of these cognitive biases, you have to ask yourselves these questions:
  • How was the measurements done?  Are the source of the test or measurement a reliable one?
  • Are the measurements valid (measuring what they are supposed to measure) and/or have been tested to be valid?
  • Are the measurements reliable (producing consistent results over a period of time) and/or have been tested to be reliable?
  • Are the results reliable? Can we trust the results?
  • Are the results specific enough, such that they can be perceived/read in an accurate manner? 

My training in psychology, and especially in research, has cultivated me to critically question things and check out the "facts" if they are accurate and valid.  This has sometimes resulted in me questioning my own perceptions and reflecting on my own knowledge.  However, in the purpose of seeking knowledge, it is a must to be done.  Unfortunately our society are still very susceptible to these very common cognitive biases, resulting in these unreliable yet very marketable (easy to understand and sell to the general public) tests to flourish in the market.

To conclude, I no longer read my horoscopes, but sometimes have to do these assessments in my organisation.  As I do them, I will research on their validity and reliability so as to have a better understanding of whether they will be useful to me.  If they are not, I will take the results with a "huge pinch of salt".
The next post this month will cover what students should note to be a valid and reliable measurement/test, and the different types of validity and reliability measurements.