It's become an accepted practice in recent years for employers to check the public social media accounts of applicants before making an offer. Losing out on a job opportunity because of an offensive tweet or a racy Instagram photo is a real possibility.
But what about if you're applying for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA)? Are your social media posts grounds for denying a claim? If you already receive benefits, could they be used to prove you're no longer eligible? We asked a disability attorney to weigh in on when social media activity could be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to approve a claim.
The popularity of social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok continues to grow. In a recent year, adults in the U.S. spent a total average of 1 hour and 15 minutes a day engaging on social platforms. If you're among those who post regularly, there are things you should keep in mind if you're seeking disability benefits from the SSA.
If you've applied for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income), your case will be reviewed by a claims examiner at your state Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency. If you've been denied benefits initially or after reconsideration, you can request a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ).
In most cases, claims examiners, agency staff, and ALJs can't use social media platforms to gather information about you. And, if evidence from social media was obtained prior to your hearing, an ALJ won't consider it.
"A judge isn't allowed to look at your Facebook page before your hearing and ask you questions about what you post there, for example," says Diana Chaikin, J.D, Nolo legal editor and attorney with 10 years of experience representing disability claimants.
The SSA can, however, use social media to verify your claim for two reasons. First, if you're under investigation for disability fraud, a Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit (CDIU) officer might look at your social media to see if you're doing activities that aren't consistent with what you told the SSA.
For example, if your claim states that you can't walk even short distances, but you post recent photos of yourself hiking a mountain, the pictures can be included in a report. A claims examiner or judge could then use that information to deny your claim or stop any benefits you're already receiving.
Second, the SSA can include social media content in your file if you or your representative submitted the posts to them. Something that Chaikin advises against.
While judges and disability examiners can't use what you post on social media to determine your case most of the time, some people simply have a natural curiosity and might check your social media accounts. If that happens, it could subconsciously bias them against you and play a role in their decision.
If you're applying for disability, you might want to limit your social media sharing. Claims examiners and judges are sometimes local to where you live. You might even have mutual friends on social media. Your post could inadvertently show up on the feed of someone who decides your disability claim.
"You don't want a curious disability examiner scrolling through Facebook on their lunch break to see you're partying every night, when your application says that you have overwhelming social anxiety," Chaikin says.
While it's true that people with a disability might have good days and bad days, a photo can easily give the wrong impression. For example, a dad might be able to play catch with his son on one day and be in debilitating pain the next. A snapshot is just a moment in time but it could put you in an unfavorable light—and make the difference between a disability claim being approved or denied.
Social media don'ts include posting:
Many people use social media to earn income or promote a home-based business. If that's true for you, make sure to report your home business or side hustle earnings to the SSA. Failure to do so could have a negative effect on your claim.
It's not necessary to stop using social media altogether when you're applying for disability benefits. Many people with disabilities use social media platforms to find a community of people coping with similar conditions or to advocate for disability rights.
If you choose to use social media, just be mindful about what you're sharing.
"Posting a picture of yourself at a birthday party once in a while probably won't hurt your claim even if you are under investigation for fraud," Chaikin says. "Living with a disability doesn't mean that you can't enjoy life."
However, if you're continually documenting yourself doing a wide range of physical and social activities, checking in at multiple locations or playing sports, this could be included in a CDIU report.
Here are some absolute dos for using social media while filing a disability claim:
Chaikin says that the SSA has discussed evaluating how "social media could be used by disability adjudicators" to assess a disability claim. But the SSA hasn't moved in that direction yet, Chaikin adds.
"Personally, I've never seen any reference to social media when reading a denial from DDS and I've never heard a judge ask a question specifically about a post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok," says Chaikin.
Chaikin doesn't think the existing policy will change anytime soon. One reason is that what's posted on social media is not always reality, and a questionable activity in a photo may not have occurred on the day the photo was posted. Checking social media is also unlikely to be added as an approval step because it could increase wait times for claim processing.
But whether or not the SSA expands its use of social media to evaluate claims, your best practice is to always think before you post.
Filing for disability benefits can be a frustrating and lengthy process. Getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate can double your likelihood of being approved.
Your lawyer can gather and submit medical records, handle communications with the SSA, help you deal with any issue caused by social media, and represent you at a disability hearing.
Published January 5, 2023