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Is Facebook an appropriate platform for professional discourse?

02 February 2015
6 min read
Volume 23 · Issue 2

Abstract

Facebook was founded in 2004 and is an online social networking service. There are over 31 million users in the UK, with more than 77 000 of these listing their occupation as nurse, midwife or health visitor. Historically, Facebook was used to supplement and enhance existing real-world relationships, rather than to access, communicate and disseminate professional information; however, with the growing popularity and accessibility of social media, could Facebook be used safely and effectively as a platform for professional discourse?

‘Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world and to share and express what matters to them.’ (Facebook, 2014a).

Registered users can create profiles, upload photos and videos and send messages to keep in touch or reconnect with friends, family and colleagues. Members can create an individual profile, a ‘group’ with a shared interest or a ‘page’ to disseminate information about a person, group or product (Kashani et al, 2014).

How to create an account

Go to www.facebook.com/help/ to access the Facebook Helpdesk, which provides comprehensive information about Facebook from getting started to managing your privacy and security and safety tools and resources. This is an excellent place to start as you can browse before you commit to signing up.

To sign up go to www.facebook.com. If you see the sign up form, fill out your name, email address or phone number, password, birthday and gender. If you don't see the form, click Sign Up, then fill out the form. Once you sign up, you'll need to confirm your email address or phone number. Facebook will send you either an email or a text message to help you confirm your account. That's it! Table 1 outlines a few select groups and pages that you may wish to follow.


The Nursing and Midwifery Council The UK regulator for nursing and midwifery professions with a stated aim to protect the health and wellbeing of the public
Care Quality Commission Checks whether hospitals, care homes and care services are meeting national standards
World Health Organisation The directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system
Department of Health (UK) The Ministerial Department of the UK Government responsible for government policy on health and social care matters
Perinatal Institute for Maternal and Child Health Dedicated to improving the quality of maternity services through education, research and the development of products and services which promote excellence in care
The Royal College of Midwives The voice of midwifery. The UK's only trade union, professional organisation led by midwives for midwives
NHS Choices Provides updates on the latest health news and provides a community to help people improve their health

You can also like or follow groups or organisations through their websites, where you see the Facebook logo.

Privacy and security

On 1st January 2015 Facebook updated its terms and policies. This was quickly followed by a hoax that has been around since 2012 regarding terms and conditions and ownership of data whereby some Facebook users were duped into copying and pasting a spurious post allegedly protecting them from the new terms and conditions. By posting this statement users were assured that they were henceforth protected from Facebook taking control of their data and/or violating their privacy. This hoax was quickly quashed by Facebook who clarified that users own and control the content and information they post. Users are bound by the terms and conditions they agree to on signing up to Facebook and these terms and conditions cannot be changed without notice.

Privacy Basics was introduced in January 2015 (Facebook, 2014b) and it provides tips and a how-to guide for using Facebook. This is a must for new users as it is a user-friendly resource providing step-by-step, interactive guides on what privacy features are available and how to use them. There is research to suggest qualified health professionals use Facebook mostly for social, rather than professional and educational, purposes (Alkhateeb et al, 2011). The need for education and professional guidance, both in terms of how to use the internet confidently (McKenna and McLelland, 2011) and on the concept of maintaining e-professionalism have been key themes in a number of studies (Sandars and Schroter, 2007; MacDonald et al, 2010; George, 2011). Privacy Basics is not just for novices, it could also be a useful resource for experienced users to refer to in order to review how their social Facebook activity might impact on their professional status.

Should Facebook be a social or professional space?

The advent of social media has necessitated the concept of professional identity to expand to incorporate professionalism in the digital as well as real-world domain (Harshman et al, 2005). Understanding the concept of e-professionalism/digital professionalism, defined as ‘the attitudes and behaviours reflecting traditional professionalism paradigms that are manifested through social/digital media’ (Cain and Romanelli, 2009: 67) is crucial if midwives choose to disclose their professional status on Facebook. Users must realise that the boundary between personal and professional personas is blurred in an online environment and professional responsibilities still apply (Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), 2008; NMC, 2012), which is why a number of nurses have been disciplined by the NMC for inappropriate use of Facebook. The majority of cases were unintentional, arguably as a result of how they set up their privacy and security, or assuming posts could only be read by the intended recipient and therefore including confidential information, which could subsequently be shared with a wider audience than intended, thereby breaching confidentiality (Farrelly, 2014).

To sign up or not to sign up?

There are clear benefits to the judicious use of social media to support midwifery practice and promote high quality, evidence-based care (Power, 2014; Power, 2015). Facebook is already a legitimate platform for professional communication and dissemination of information and has been adopted by professional bodies and organisations for that very purpose. In order to use Facebook safely it is vital that midwives understand that, unlike face-to-face communications, information disclosed online, even if originally intended for a ‘trusted’ group of people, is permanent and searchable. Once a comment, photo or video has been posted it is ‘out there’ and can be copied, shared and distributed. With this in mind, Chinn (2014) offers some practical advice: before posting anything, consider whether you would be happy to disclose this information to a room full of people in a ‘real-world situation’. Facebook is the virtual equivalent of this room full of people; however, the difference is there are no physical or geographical boundaries and the size and membership of the audience is unknown.

Facebook groups—a happy medium?

Facebook offers the facility to set up a group, which could be a very useful tool for professional discourse, collaboration and networking with potentially greater levels of privacy and security than those offered by an individual profile. A group must be set up properly, not only in terms of appropriate Facebook settings but also with clear ground rules (what goes on the Facebook Group stays on the Facebook Group). Anyone with an account can create a group using one of three levels of privacy:

  • Public—where anyone can see the group, its members and their posts
  • Closed—where anyone can find the group and see who's in it but only members can see posts
  • Secret—where only members can find the group and see posts.
  • These three levels of privacy provide flexibility in terms of creating and administrating groups with a specific purpose in mind: a public group may attract a diverse group of personalities, interests and contributions; a private group may have a more specific focus and therefore want to be visible in the first instance to attract potential members, yet maintain the facility to limit membership by vetting individual requests to join. A secret group is effectively membership by invite only for a very specific group of people which in a midwifery context could be a journal club, staff members from a particular clinical area or even a class reunion and so it would not be appropriate for it to be made available or visible to the general public.

    Stop Press!

    Facebook has recently introduced Facebook at Work (Facebook, 2015) whereby employees in companies who have signed up to it can set up an account to interact with co-workers. Anything shared in this application will only be visible to company employees and is separate from personal accounts (although you are able to connect it to your personal account allowing you to switch between the two with the same username and password). Could this innovation be useful for professional networking for midwives and other health professionals in the clinical environment? It could be used to develop local professional networks: a sort of halfway house where users can communicate online and—perish the thought—even meet face to face!

    And finally…

    The aim of this article was to provide a simple guide on how to use Facebook confidently, productively and safely in a professional context; however, it is clear that Facebook is far from simple.

    There is no doubt that Facebook is incredibly popular, with a third of the UK population visiting the site every day (Sedghi, 2014). It has many benefits: it is global and therefore has great potential for international networking and information sharing; professional bodies and organisations have a presence, which is useful in terms of keeping up-to-date with professional issues; it provides the facility to create professional or social groups; it is cheap, accessible, engaging and arguably addictive! Facebook's mission is to allow people to stay connected with friends and family (Facebook, 2014a) yet it has crossed over into the professional domain, necessitating a reconsideration of professional and personal boundaries. Historically, physical location dictated what constituted appropriate behaviour: when you were at work you acted professionally in-line with professional standards; when you were off duty societal expectations of appropriate behaviour applied. There is no such distinction in an online environment and so the key issues in safe Facebook use are:

  • To understand how the platform works
  • To be conscious of how you use it, with ‘the room full of people’ rule being a useful barometer (Chinn, 2014)
  • To be judicious in your choice of friends
  • To revisit your privacy and security settings on a regular basis.