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Social Media in Higher Education

Chris Rowell

Part Seven. The personal journey

23. The ‘Healthy Academic’, Social Media, and a Personal and Professional Journey

Neil Withnell

Texte intégral

#Beginner #Twitter #Facebook


1Embracing social media as a potent tool in nurse education has become a large part of my working life. I fully embrace, and see the value of, social media and try to engage positively with Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube etc.

2I am aware of many potential pitfalls in the use of social media and I endeavour to avoid these and assist others in avoiding them, where possible. Whilst avoiding the pitfalls is important, an overemphasis on this aspect might be having a counterproductive effect, resulting in practitioners and educators feeling wary of social media and failing to harness the connectivity that it allows. The purpose of this chapter is to look at the pitfalls and the relative ease of avoiding them, whilst juxtaposing this with the great creativity that social media affords for those who are confident enough to use it professionally. In order to use social media in a creative but safe manner (safe for you and others), individuals have to be able to look objectively at their own use of social media on a professional and personal level. Developing the ability to question your personal use of social media against the wider background of your online professional identity, and recognising the need to ensure that one does not compromise the other, is essential in promoting that safety whilst learning just how powerful a tool social media can be. Ollier-Malaterre and Rothbard (2015) found that some professionals are avoiding social media altogether but that this limits opportunities to connect people and collect information.

Social Media in Healthcare

3Within the healthcare professions, professional bodies have produced guidelines for the use of social media. The regulatory body for nursing and midwifery in the UK, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), provides guidance for professionals in avoiding the misuse of social media whilst encouraging familiarity with social media tools (NMC, 2017). The NMC remind professionals to ‘think before you post’, indicating that what might feel private may not be.

4The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) regulates 16 professions including social workers, occupational therapists, dieticians, paramedics and many others. The guidance also provides the same message, ‘think before you post’, and similarly encourages professionals to keep on posting, seeing social media as a worthwhile communication tool (HCPC, 2017). These guidelines promote public and corporate safety by adhering to a code of conduct with online presence whether it be for personal or professional use.

5The British Medical Association (BMA) guidance for doctors and medical students refers to its guidance as ‘common sense’ (BMA, 2017). This is a vague term that inadequately guides members in recognising where they may be acting inappropriately within their online presence. The BMA guidelines take a similar stance to those adopted by other professional bodies advocating awareness of the potential to compromise professional status if personal use is not managed appropriately, and reinforcing the importance of other professional guidelines published by the BMA and General Medical Council (GMC, 2013). There appears to be a unifying message within the aforementioned professional guidelines: do not do anything online — even in a seemingly private domain — that would breach the Code that you adhere to in your professional life. As nurses we are made aware of our duty to the public at all times within the Code of Practice (NMC, 2015). This clearly states a nurse’s duty to act in the best interests of people at all times. In reference to supporting colleagues, the Code states that this should never compromise or be at the expense of patient or public safety. The statement about respecting and upholding people’s human rights does not have a caveat of ‘only when on duty’ and it can be assumed that the Code extends to our use of social media. Journalists increasingly find old online social media posts for celebrities, politicians and public figures which can have a devastating impact on their careers. Take the example of Labour MP Jared O’Mara, who resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee after it was revealed that he had posted a series of homophobic and sexist comments 15 years previously (The Guardian, 2017).

6Ollier-Malaterre and Rothbard (2015) comment that social media is risky and explain that a single unfortunate post can throw a career off track. Whilst it may seem common sense not to post highly personal or controversial material in a work web chat, you may not be so guarded in a Facebook comment on a personal online chat. You may feel that your personal comments in such arenas are only for people of your choice to view and therefore are more private. However, unless a site is encrypted, such as WhatsApp, the material can be found and may affect how you are perceived professionally and/or publicly. The BMA guidance (2017) mirrors that of the NMC in terms of wider accountability; ‘you are still a doctor or medical student on social media, even if you don’t identify yourself as such or post about medical matters’. The ethical and legal standards expected of you by the GMC and the broader, less well-defined professional expectations of our peers can still apply online as in any other part of everyday life. Respect patients and colleagues and take a cautious approach to anything that you think could affect your professional standing. The BMA guidelines offer advice about risks such as taking caution if taking pictures of your workplace which could inadvertently capture anything or anyone that breaches confidentiality.

7Shapira (2008) provides examples of teachers in America making what they perceive as personal posts on sites such as Facebook which have subsequently been viewed by employers and parents of children at the school. One young woman defends her pictures of herself drinking, stating that her work and social lives are completely separate. Indeed, the article goes on to mention that such individuals could claim the right to free speech under the First Amendment. However, it also points out that the Supreme Court in America has ruled that Governments could fire employees if their speech harmed the workplace’s mission and function.

8Lagu, et al. (2008) identifies the potential to compromise professionalism through a conflict of interest. Any online presence with a large number of followers has the potential to attract public relations professionals asking for endorsement of specific products. The study found blogs that promoted health care products within their entries but they were not able to determine if these were paid endorsements because they could not find any disclosures indicating the authors’ conflict of interest. The NMC Code of Conduct states ‘never use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health’ (2015).

9Ollier-Malaterre and Rothbard (2015) details preferred social media strategies that individuals can adopt after diagnosing their own most natural online behaviour. Ask yourself the following to determine your own online behaviour:

  • Do you value transparency and authenticity, and if so, do you post whatever comes to mind on social media? If so, this is an open strategy that can be viewed as risky.

  • Do you prefer to keep personal and professional networks separate? This is regarded as less risky and referred to as an audience strategy. Examples include the Facebook users who learn to deflect friend requests from professional contacts by directing them to a LinkedIn account. A downside to this is managing the ‘fluid’ nature of networks as people who begin as friends can later become co-workers, or even bosses, in which case, an audience strategy can be compromised.

  • Do you feel compelled to accept friend requests from professional contacts? If so this is referred to as content strategy, whereby accepting these requests but going on to post content that has been carefully considered.

The above strategies are very different, with the content strategy being almost a polar opposite of the open strategy. The content strategy is very controlled and does not allow for unfettered posting and impulsive responses.

10BMA (2017) guidelines advise that even ostensibly private spaces could be shared more widely than you intended and uses the example of a Twitter feed being screen captured and shared out of context.

11There is a developing theme here in regard to so-called ‘private’ postings that have the potential to land you in hot water. I find when using social media professionally I am more aware of my professional accountability. This is less at the forefront of my mind when making private posts but I do hold the view that anything I post can be viewed against the professional requirements of my position as a registered nurse. Whilst I do have a private online presence, anything I do post on social media I regard as open and as such acknowledge that it can be seen by anybody. I particularly enjoy Twitter chats as the discussion is controlled, shared and enjoyed by other professionals, and this helps to keep the discussion focussed. I am however aware that many people prefer a more delineated separation of their personal and professional online presences.

12Ollier-Malaterre and Rothbard (2015) concur with this stating that the more posts are tailored to a specific circle the less risky they are. To this end they suggest a further strategy, in which users control both their audience and their content. An example of this is Facebook users creating two lists, one personal and one professional and posting content accordingly. This can allow the safeguarding of professional reputations whilst still maintaining an honest and authentic Facebook identity. This they refer to as a custom strategy.

13When considering posting online it is worth remembering the notion of a digital footprint (Madden, et al. 2007), in that anything posted leaves a mark. This is worth having at the back of your mind before pressing the ‘send/post/submit’ button, as it may have undesired negative consequences in the future, leaving a mark that you cannot remove.

14Suler (2004) wrote about the online ‘disinhibition effect’ acknowledging that people behave differently in cyberspace and will say things they may not in face to face contact. When using social media on a professional level people should be wary of the pitfalls of the disinhibition effect. Anonymity online can contribute to this disinhibition, as Suler points out, with a list of ‘ingredients’ which include;

  • You don’t know me

  • You can’t see me

15Suler further describes ‘toxic disinhibition’ where users may express anger, hatred and threats. He further describes ‘benign disinhibition’ where users may share personal things about themselves and show unusual acts of kindness or generosity. Both are viewed within psychodynamic theory as possible processes of ‘working through’, or even pathways towards ‘self-actualisation’. Whilst this can be a developmental process for an individual both personally and professionally, it may not be a journey that we want in the public domain no matter how enhancing it transpires to be for our own development.

16A useful quote to keep in mind when using social media is from Haig as it encourages integrity in how you portray yourself (Guardian, 2017). Haig wrote about the damage of anonymity, quoting Kurt Vonnegut ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be’


17Social media is a valuable tool in my professional life. In many ways it has become more aligned to professional use and I tend to use it less for personal reasons. The reasons behind this are partly due to the potential pitfalls I have discussed, but more importantly due to the benefits I have found in using it professionally. If using social media as a professional tool, I advise careful adherence to your own professional code of conduct. Whereas I tend to use it less for personal use, I would advocate maintaining the same standards in personal use to avoid compromising professional status. Assumed anonymity can create a false sense of security and lead to posts that reveal more than you intended to audiences you did not intend to reach, or even result in breaching your own professional standards.



British Medical Association (2017). ‘Social media, ethics and professionalism’, file:///C: /Users/nus676/Downloads/Ethics %20guidance %20on %20social %20media %20FINAL.pdf

General Medical Council (2013). ‘Doctor’s use of Social media’,

Haig (2017). ‘I used to think social media was a force for good. Now the evidence says I was wrong’, The Guardian,

Health and Care Professions Council (2017). ‘Use of social networking sites’,

Lagu, T., Kaufman, E. J., Asch, D. A., and Armstrong, K. (2008). ‘Content of Weblogs written by health professionals’, Journal of General Internal Medicine, 23: 10, pp. 1642–46.

Madden, M., Fox, S., Smith, A., and Vitak, J. (2007). ‘Digital footprints’,

Nursing and Midwifery Council (2017). ‘Social media guidance’,

Nursing and Midwifery Council (2015). ‘The code: Professional standards of practice and behaviour for nurses and midwives’,

Ollier-Malaterre, A., and Rothbard, N. (2015). ‘How to separate the personal and professional on social media,

Shapira, I. (2008). ‘When young teachers go wild on the Web’,

Suler, J. (2004). ‘The online disinhibition effect’, Cyberpsychology & Behaviour, 7: 3, pp. 321–26.

(2017). ‘Labour MP quits Equality Committee over homophobic posts’, The Guardian,


Associate Dean, Academic Quality Assurance, at the University of Salford. A qualified mental health nurse, Neil has worked in higher education for the past fifteen years and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is the author of Family Interventions in Mental Health (2012) and his research interests include therapeutic horticulture and social media in healthcare. Neil is active on Twitter and can be found under @neilwithnell


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