February 14, 2012 Features

Social Media: To Friend or Not to Friend

SLP Fe Murray lives in a small resort town in Arizona, which is bordered by a Navajo reservation. Although it's a town that swells with yearly tourists, the core community of almost 7,000 is tight and everybody knows everybody.

"The people who cut my hair have children who I treat in speech," Murray says. "The line is very blurry between your professional and personal life here and I actually have many clients I consider to be my friends."

"Friends," however, has become a rather loose term in this age of social media proliferation. According to a recent report by ComScore, as of October 2011, 1.2 billion global users visited social media sites. The report goes on to reveal that nearly one in five minutes spent online is now spent on social networking sites, connecting with others with shared interests. Inevitably, offline lives are starting to intersect with online lives, which, if you happen to be a healthcare or education professional, could potentially lead to some uncomfortable situations and even ethical dilemmas. Reports of professionals getting into hot water over seemingly innocuous (and seemingly private) postings are rising. Consider the Chicago computer teacher who was disciplined for posting and mocking a photo of a second-grade student's hairstyle on Facebook, or the Rhode Island emergency room doctor who was fined $500 by the state medical board and fired for posting information about a patient on Facebook. Although these are examples of professionals using less-than-stellar judgment, the point remains that private remarks, photos, and observations on Facebook always have the potential to go public. Knowing that, Murray says that when she receives friend requests from clients, she carefully uses Facebook's friend list feature to separate friends and family members into a different category than professional acquaintances, enabling her to control who sees the items she posts as well as who can post items to her wall. "I'm always happy for people to send messages to me with photos or questions about speech," she says. "I just don't want them posting them on my wall."

A Moving Target

And although that's the right perspective—keeping it all separate—even setting up safeguards like separate friend "lists" on Facebook is not always foolproof. What if a photo you post of yourself on vacation in Las Vegas is commented on by a friend who, in turn, is friends with one of your student's parents (who you have on an "acquaintance" list)? Thanks to the scrolling news feed on the right side of the page, your run-in with the karaoke microphone has now spread beyond your friends. Additionally, Facebook is notorious for changing privacy settings without users' knowledge or permission (an action that has recently garnered scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, resulting in charges of "unfair and deceptive" privacy practices). And unfortunately another workaround for Facebook that many CSD professionals cited--creating separate profiles for professional and personal use--actually violates Facebook's Terms of Service and could result in Facebook deleting both accounts.

So what is a communication sciences and disorders professional to do? One idea is to use another site entirely (such as LinkedIn) for professional communication and keep Facebook personal. But if Facebook is your domain, another idea (one that won't result in Facebook deleting your accounts) is to restrict your Facebook personal profile to friends and family and create a Facebook Page for communicating with clients, potential clients, and others you're involved with in a professional capacity. In addition to being a safer bet in terms of potential deletion of your accounts, Facebook Pages offer many advantages over individual profiles in terms of marketing. Once you have created a Page, when you receive friend requests from those connected to your professional identity, you can refer those people instead to your page and ask that they "like" it to stay connected with you on Facebook.

SLP Jordan Sadler says that she frequently has professionals and parents connect with her who are interested in her work but whom she's never actually met. She uses her Facebook Page to share articles—a practice which she points out saves both time and paper.

"I wasn't comfortable accepting friend requests on Facebook from parents I work with, or with colleagues I don't have a personal relationship with. So I created a completely separate FB page that I use professionally. Families and colleagues have friended me (I wait for parents to reach out to me, I don't go to them unless they've indicated in person that they want to connect that way) and I post tons of articles and information that's relevant to my practice there. It's a fantastic marketing tool!" says Sadler.

Some Guidance Please

Certainly, Facebook is not the only game in town when it comes to social networking, there are numerous other social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, personal blogs and others, that can potentially offer the chance for personal experiences to be shared with professional colleagues, sometimes unintentionally. To address the myriad issues and risks associated with social networking as a whole, the American Nurses Association (ANA) recently released a Social Networking Principles toolkit, which provides guidance that's also relevant to CSD professionals. The principles emphasize that while social media does provide benefits such as networking; exchange of knowledge; dissemination and discussion of health-related education, research and best practices; as well as a forum for educating the public on health-related matters, it does involve risks such as breech of patient privacy and the potential for professional credibility to be compromised. ANA offers six principles for social networking; CSD professionals can substitute "healthcare practitioners" for "nurses" and use these principles as a guideline for their own online activities:

  1. Nurses must not transmit or place online individually-identifiable patient information.
  2. Nurses must observe ethically prescribed professional patient-nurse boundaries.
  3. Nurses should understand that patients, colleagues, institutions, and employers may view postings.
  4. Nurses should take advantage of privacy settings and seek to separate personal and professional information online.
  5. Nurses should bring content that could harm a patient's privacy, rights, or welfare to the attention of appropriate authorities.
  6. Nurses should participate in developing institutional policies governing online conduct.

Another health-related organization that offers guidance about social media is the Ohio State Medical Association; their social networking guidelines for physicians, office staff and patients offer valuable guidance and best practices, including guidance related to insurance, practice management and accountability with regard to endorsements of products or other service provider's services.

On the education side there are some emerging guidelines for teachers and other school professionals, as well. While many school districts are developing policies about teachers' use of social media, Facebook recently released its "Facebook Educator's Guide" to help guide educators through the benefits and potential pitfalls of using social media in the classroom. Although the guide points out many of the benefits of having Facebook Pages and engagement between students and teachers, the guide also suggests keeping profile information private. Why? "Most educators don't want students to browse their Profile … your Profile can have a lot of personal information about you, including photos posted by other people (like your little sister in Miami)," according to the authors. "By the same token, most educators don't seek to browse Profiles of their students. We advocate this approach. It's a good way to respect student privacy—and to have students respect your privacy."

Don't Let Your Slip Show

But even with all the separation precautions, lists, and pages in the end it's always a good idea to ignite your internal editor when it comes to posting. Fe Murray says she always has followed this approach when it comes to social media, even when she is posting on her private account to her closest friends and family. Aside from some possible "bad outfit decisions" she tries to remember that first and foremost she is a speech-language pathologist no matter where people interact with her—in the grocery store or online—that is their impression of her.

"Just like you wouldn't go to the grocery store wearing rollers in your hair, you don't want to vent or be unprofessional online either," she says. "It leaves an impression and I want mine to be a good one."

Maggie McGary, is the social media manager for ASHA and can be reached at mmcgary@asha.org.

Kellie Rowden-Racette, is the print and online editor for The ASHA Leader and can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.

cite as: McGary, M.  & Rowden-Racette, K. (2012, February 14). Social Media: To Friend or Not to Friend. The ASHA Leader.

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