The Internet and Social Care

A version of this article under the title "Control Shift" appeared in "Community Care" magazine 4-10 February 1999. It is reproduced here with the agreement of the editor.

The Internet: just hype or an important contribution to social care and social work? Keith Fletcher reports.

“I need to have a word before the case conference on Wednesday. Give me a call as soon as you get this message.”

If it was between agencies this could be a fax message or left on an answering machine or with a third party. It could also be conveyed by Internet e-mail but, if the agencies are in the business of social care, that is still much less likely than between say academics or medics. If the message gets through, what does it matter? Well, quite. But e-mail is rather more likely to get through because it is more reliable.

There are other significant advantages. It is quicker and cheaper than fax or phone (or post of course).
Distance has no effect on either cost or speed: Chicago is as close as Coventry! You can sent the same message to a number of people at once for no extra cost or additional time. It also has another considerable edge. “I am attaching an addendum on the family circumstances for you to insert into the court report for Friday.” Anything I write, like this article for example, I can send to you for you to insert into anything you want without the need for transcription. I can do the same with pictures or sound; a database or a spreadsheet.

E-mail has nothing in particular to do with social care or social work of course. It is just a very powerful communication tool. But as soon as you buy into it you open the door to two additional sources of information of enormous and very specific value.

E-mails can be sent to many people at once. That fact is exploited to set up discussion lists and news groups for people with similar interests. The difference between the two lies in the way they are stored, accessed and activated. If you want to join a discussion list you take an active step: you send a special e-mail to the controller of the list with your address. Some lists will refuse you access if they don’t think you are suitable and throw you out if you misuse them. Once on the list you can request or offer information and see the result of other requests and discussion. There are lists of interest to people in all branches of social care. As for news groups - there are about 32,000 of them but, to be frank, I have yet to find one of much value to me.

But the real information revolution is the World Wide Web (WWW). It is about four years old and already by far the largest information database in the world. It contains the biggest bookshop, several of the world’s largest libraries, detailed information on just about every topic you can imagine, extensive and intensive news coverage from all over the world - and a great deal of garbage! Finding your way around the world’s largest and least discriminating library is a learned skill but well worth the effort. You’ll find some pointers of use to social workers and voluntary agencies elsewhere on this page.

But aren’t there serious risks involved in “going on-line”? It is certainly not risk free; it’s not myth free either!

Prediction is a dangerous game but I’m going to risk one all the same. Within three years every business, voluntary and public agency will be on the Internet. It is already regarded in many circles as essential as the telephone and few people who use it regularly can remember how they managed without it!
 Case studies

Here are a few examples of how people use the Internet in practice.

Sharing knowledge and ideas

“I'm doing a feature on the Internet for Community Care ... Anyone kind enough to tell me which web pages they use most and why .... I'd also like to do a straw poll.”

This message, on the UK social work list run by National Institute for Social Work, produced over 40 responses within two days.

Students, academics, practitioners, managers and planners ask for information, research references, good practice ideas, new ways of managing and likely web sites (addresses for the World Wide Web). Internet users seem to be very generous with their learning.


A local Youth Link Project uses the World Wide Web for information on drugs, alcohol, HIV/AIDS etc. for local seminars and discussion groups. They keep in touch with other youth organisations and useful agencies by referring to their web sites. And the young people in particular correspond with other youth groups and individuals world wide by e-mail.

Keeping up to date

A local Access Group, which monitors access to public buildings and facilities for disabled people, keeps a close eye on the Council by a regular check on its website. They search for sources of funding. They keep track of publications about, for example, drugs, equipment and services. They find holiday facilities with wheelchair and ground floor access. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ideas from aboard.


“This young man suffers from attention deficit disorder.” But what is it? What can be done about it? What does it imply for support to the family? What are the symptoms? Where can I find more information?

Type “attention deficit” into a World Wide Web search engine and you’ll find a huge body of information, from all over the World. It will give you state of the art answers to your questions and others you hadn’t thought of.

Getting about

For a complete beginner an hour sitting with someone who already knows their way about will give your confidence a boost and save lots of time later.

There are two different kinds of Internet addresses, for e-mail (correspondence) and the World Wide Web (usually “read only”). My e-mail address, for example, is - - . You can write to me there. World Wide Web addresses always begin “http://”. They are often listed in print publications now. There is no equivalent of the telephone directory for either but there are various search facilities for both on the World Wide Web itself.

You use a program called a “browser” to read what’s on the World Wide Web. If you know the address you simply paste or type it in. But there are other ways of finding things. Useful web sites always contain point and click LINKS to other sites. All the sites in the “Getting started” box have many useful links. You can use one of the SEARCH facilities on your browser. If you have a specific target like “Alzheimer’s” or “wheel chair access” they are usually excellent. Entering “social work” or “medicine” will get you started on sometimes a long road of discovery! Finally, with experience you can sometimes guess at an address; (try http://WWW. “Dell”, “Shell” or “Tesco” for example).

Good hunting!

 Getting started

It’s best to start with a few sites with links to many other places. These UK social welfare sites satisfy this criterion and are informative and interesting in themselves. -

You can “subscribe” (no money involved!) to the NISW discussion group from their site.

The Government website gives you immediate access to its own and almost all other public sites and up to date Government press releases are at the second address.

There’s an excellent little Internet introduction at

Finally perhaps the best news site in the World is at

Created 19 March 1999