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What is social media?

02 December 2014
Volume 22 · Issue 12


There is growing evidence to suggest that social media platforms have great potential for professional discourse, dissemination of research and sharing of best practice; with their use being supported by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) who both have active social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter. In the absence of official guidelines, the NMC advises its members to act as professionally online as in person, in line with the principles of The Code (NMC, 2008). The extension of the construct of professionalism to the digital domain has blurred the boundary between personal and professional personas and this lack of clarity seems to have created a barrier to social media being used by midwives to its full potential in a professional context. This series of short articles will offer step-by-step guides on how to join the social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn using appropriate privacy settings and will provide suggestions on how to use the platforms confidently, productively and safely in a professional context.

Social media platforms are continuing to grow in popularity, with Facebook having over 31 million users in the UK; Twitter 15 million, and LinkedIn 10 million (McRory, 2014).

Social media employs mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms to enable people to communicate, share, collaborate and modify user-generated content, thereby providing a platform for real time virtual interactions (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010; Kietzmann et al, 2011; King et al, 2013; Bagley et al, 2014). Unlike face-to-face interactions, they have a global audience with almost immediate response times and are cheap and easy to use. Social media includes collaborative projects (e.g. Wikipedia); blogs and microblogs (e.g. Twitter); social news networking sites (SNS) (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn); content communities (e.g. YouTube); and virtual social worlds (e.g. Second Life) (Boyd and Ellison, 2008).

How can social media inform midwifery practice?

When considering the application of social media tools in a health care setting, McNab (2009: 566) suggests ‘social media is an opportunity for health professionals to explore, listen and engage’. In relation to midwifery practice, Stewart et al (2012: 432) suggest social media encourages the dissemination of evidence-based research to inform practice; ‘create an international network of practice and collaboration’ and ‘provide opportunities for informal learning within a life-long learning paradigm’. Social media platforms afford greater flexibility with regards to learning opportunities and professional networking as they are free and can be accessed from any location (Cleary et al, 2013); whereas traditional methods of meeting continuing professional development (CPD) requirements have limitations in relation to costs (travel and attendance fees) and organisational barriers where service needs must take precedence over study leave requests (Carroll et al, 2009; Ousey and Gallagher, 2010).

With the introduction of revalidation in 2015 to supersede post-registration education and practice (Prep) (Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), 2012), the NMC is currently exploring alternative CPD activities (NMC, 2014). Could social media underpin high quality evidence-based midwifery care and support professional collaboration and knowledge sharing?

The NMC and Royal College of Midwives (RCM) both have active social media profiles using Twitter and Facebook within their communication strategies.

Findings in relation to qualified health professionals' and social media suggest social media is currently being used mostly for social rather than professional and educational purposes (Aklhateeb et al, 2011). The need for education and professional guidance, both in terms of how to use the internet confidently and on the concept of maintaining e-professionalism are clearly areas for development (Sandars and Schroter, 2007; MacDonald et al, 2010; George, 2011; McKenna and McLelland, 2011).

To date, there are no official NMC guidelines for the appropriate use of social media by its members. Members are advised to act as professionally online as in person, in line with the principles of The Code (NMC, 2008) and the importance of maintaining confidentiality, respecting professional boundaries and not using social media unlawfully are reinforced (NMC, 2012).

With advancing technologies come opportunities for real-time learning and collaboration, including the judicious use of social media (George, 2011; Cook and Pachler, 2012)—so what are you waiting for? What's stopping you?

Table 1. NMC and RCM's social media presence
Institution Facebook (likes) Twitter (followers)
NMC 56,952 23.7K
RCM 17,105 14.7K

‘How to’ step-by-step guides

I am not a social media guru, rather an enthusiastic novice who can see its potential for professional discourse to underpin evidence-based practice. The ‘how to’ guides in future issues on how to join Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn will take you through the set up process for all three platforms so you can use them safely to inform your practice.