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Social media - should you approach it like a toddler, teenager, parent, professional or President?


I was prompted to write this blog by a pair of sparkly shoes on a Social Worker’s Tweet. Amazing shoes and a positive ‘anonymous’ post. But it still made me pause and think about how easily professionals can trip up on social media. I am no expert in digital technology. If you asked my nearest and dearest they would have plenty of stories to share of my blunders. Nothing major but a few squirm moments. In my journey, from fledgling Facebook user through to novice blogger, I have at different times been a techno toddler, teenager, parent or professional. Sharing my learning from these approaches could help others manage the exciting (and terrifying) world of social media. Do please use this as a starting point for dialogue. I am curious to know what other people think.

My friends and family were all established on Facebook for years before I braved creating an account. I was worried about how much information becomes publicly available and the way this makes people vulnerable. Not for me. No. No. Absolutely not! ...

Then I became grandmother and I realised I was missing out on the opportunities social media offers to connect virtually. I created an account without really understanding the world I was exploring. Actually I had almost no idea but I thought I was clever. I used a name only my closest circle would recognise and a quilt image for my icon. Ten minutes later my first post appeared on my timeline. “Mum, are you on Facebook? If so please don't ‘like’ anything or comment on my posts”. How on earth had that happened? Who else could work out I was me? I was reminded of how curious toddlers mimic what they have seen but really have not quite got it... like demonstrating their scissor skills by trimming their own hair.

First lesson learnt: The technology is way more sophisticated and connected than you can ever imagine. It will always be ahead of you!

Nevertheless, the lure of daily posts of a precious grandchild’s day was irresistible and I became a convert. I tightened my privacy and gained confidence. I set myself some ‘rules’ (no swearing, liking or commenting on posts that could potentially breach any professional codes, keeping posts and comments positive, and not linking myself to work on personal accounts). I have been grateful for those self-imposed boundaries although I am not sure if I have the balance right.

I created a professional account using my own name, without any ‘friends’ in the belief that I could keep my professional and personal self separate. I was (rather smugly) teaching the professional use of social media to students. Like a protective parent I was explaining potential consequences and urging caution. Then suddenly my personal and professional lives collided. A student announced that they had found my personal Facebook account...and they could see everything! Heart stopping moment of panic....Some of my most recent posts related to something deeply personal to me and, although it was no secret, it was something I had not wanted to share with my students. I shared my discomfort with the students and we explored together how we manage the boundaries around our personal and professional lives.

Lessons two, three, and four:

-Never say ‘my privacy settings are really tight’ - someone is bound to take up the challenge!

-How to turn heart sink moments into learning opportunities

-The impossibility of anonymity

And five - You cannot separate your professional and personal lives on social media because the sophisticated algorithms link us whether we realise it or not!

Teenagers are renowned for their impulsive behaviours and impulsiveness equals trouble in the world of social media. Just think Donald Trump with his late night tweets here! However the adolescent brain is undergoing a burst of rapid development and growth. We need some of the teenaged approach if we are going to take risks, innovate and enter fresh environments. It is my inner teen that pushes me to try out new things, to have a go and feel excited by possibilities.

So ‘think before you post’ is great advice. Once it is out there it is out there. The ambulance driver who photographed a note left on their vehicle, and tweeted it without thinking through the consequences, probably wishes they paused before posting. It went viral and resulted in a patient’s confidential information being widely shared (Johnson, 2017).

If you would not say it openly, in your own name, then perhaps it’s best not to say it.

What can we say? Professional codes of conduct offer some guidance on how to behave professionally on social media. For example, the HCPC code says - “You must use all forms of communication appropriately and responsibly, including social media and networking sites” and “You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession” (www.hpc-uk.org). The Nursing and Midwifery Council has a similar code of conduct. They spell out what ‘responsible’ use of social media means in Guidance on Using Social Media Responsibly (https://www.nmc.org.uk/standards/guidance/social-media-guidance/). I would suggest it’s worth a read and a sensible guide for any professional working with people. It’s not rocket science but it might make you think.

The consequences for professionals can be serious. I set my students the task of being the ‘panel’ that determined the outcome of some complaints relating to social media use. What my students did not know was that all the cases were real and had resulted in job loss or removal from a professional register. This activity prompted some great debate. We discovered that some supermarket chains actually sack people for simply stating who their employer is on social media. They can do this because it’s in their policy or contract. Do you know what your employer’s policy says?

Maybe you might want to stop and think about what ‘digital footprint’ you already have? Are there photos of you on boozy nights out online? Have you made comments about your bad day at work? Or used sexually explicit, discriminatory or aggressive language? Are you sure you have not accidentally breached confidentiality?

Despite the pitfalls social media offers so many possibilities for professionals. I get inspired by the things people share on social media and it is a fantastic way of sharing knowledge. So I want to encourage us to use it. I wonder which approach you use...toddler, teenager, or professional?

I will finish in ‘parent’ mode...

Keep safe and protect your professional reputation.

And... a note to the Tweeter with the sparkly shoes: I covet your shoes would recognise them anywhere. They render your pseudonym useless to anyone who meets you wearing them.

Johnson, S. (23rd November 2017) ‘I got a ‘don’t block my drive’ note on my ambulance: this is what happened next’ in The Guardian

United Kingdom

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