1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Joe

Becoming another screen in a time of Covid-19

Last week I completed my first ‘virtual visit’ to a family home, and it is likely to have been my first of many more to come.

Over the second half of March the escalation in government guidance in relation to Covid-19 shaped the work I did with families. There was a period of time when we were told to reconsider visits if there were older or immunosuppressed people in the home. We were then told to only do visits that had already been booked in and to keep ‘socially-distant’ from all those we visited (a hard task for anyone who works with toddlers!). Finally, following the Prime Minister’s declaration of a ‘lockdown’ we were informed that, from hereon in, only a very small number of visits would be going ahead in person. Our day to day visits with families would continue over video call. 

The experience of these virtual family visits raised some fascinating questions that, although pertinent to the situation we find ourselves in right now, also have resonance for social work practice in general. I want to consider both the practical concerns that need to be navigated at present, and also some of the broader questions that this pivot to technology provokes.

My initial video call was with a family I had not yet met in person. The young person I spent a while talking to was a teenager who held ‘me’ out at a distance from him. I was keenly aware that whilst talking with him he was looking in an entirely different direction. It took me right until the end of the call to realise that he was also watching TV during our call. I have no issue with a TV being on during a home visit. If this is something that makes a family feel more comfortable whilst a social worker enters their space, then I’m more than happy to roll alongside it. However, there was something in this encounter that bothered me. I had become yet another screen for the young person. 

More so, I became ‘a symbol’ of the social worker. I was present in a very flat way, still entering the family space, but unable to be my full self and unable to dispel lots of the assumptions and fears that come with meeting a social worker, particularly for the first time. Although the call was fairly long, I did not feel I got a real sense of the family home. The screen was mainly taken up with faces, and this brought into focus the central practical problem of the video call, that I will only know what is being shown to me. 

As with any innovation, the video call will necessitate a change in our practice and a sharpening of our skills. Just as we seek to take our entire environment in when entering a family home, we will now seek to take in that same environment by considering how those in it react to us in the call. We will build up our ability to interpret the subtle non-verbal, relational cues like when the phone is passed from one family member to another. We will build up different languages with each family, as each will have their own relationship with the technology. Ultimately, as ever, we will do our best to build a sense of what is going on for the young person, and consider how best we can keep them safe. However, we may feel that something is lacking in these interactions, and we may be right. 

The 20th Century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about the idea of the ‘face-to-face’. His existentialist view of ethics was that morality and human responsibility can only be forged in the face-to-face interactions in which we see one another fully. My encounter with this family over video call was anything but full. Yet I wonder if there is something else that this new technology may offer us about the face-to-face interactions, namely, a consideration of our own faces. 

As part of the video call, alongside seeing the larger image of the person one is talking to, you also have a smaller image of yourself on screen. Prior to my first call I considered how I looked, perhaps tired? Stressed? Fed-up? I sat up against a door in my home with a somewhat clinical (perhaps overly clinical) white background behind my face. Although I had thought about these distinctly cosmetic issues the thing that shocked me throughout the call was that same presence of my own face. I finally saw how I look when I talk to a young person. Did my eyes really make that shape when he told me that? Could I have picked a better time to smile like I did just then? I had a face to face encounter with myself.

As well as all the challenges that this unimaginable Covid-19 crisis has brought up for us I wonder if, in a small way, it can offer a moment of reflection on our own practice too. As well as a tool of communication with others, my phone is also to become a mirror. It is an uncomfortable and fairly rare thing to be faced with one’s own face during these professional interactions, but one that I am going to do my best to sit with. Instead of being frustrated by the limited view I get into any family home, I will seek to consider the full and honest view that I will get of myself. 

Joe – a recently qualified social worker in a Child Protection team within a Local Authority in South East England.