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When social media becomes a minefield for nurses

It is possible to stay professional while engaging in robust debate… isn’t it?
Social media discussions illustration

It is possible to stay professional while engaging in robust debate isnt it?

  • Social media is invaluable for peer support, discussion and idea-sharing, but tempers can fray
  • Advice from nurses who are seasoned users of social media on how to behave professionally in online discussions
  • Tips for dealing with rudeness and how to avoid causing offence

Social media is a routine part of what seems like everyones daily lives. It informs, entertains and, crucially for nurses, helps create professional connections by being a forum for debate and a place of peer support.

But what happens when you strongly disagree with a fellow professionals views? It is possible to dissent without being rude, nasty or falling out isnt it?

How to disagree on social media without causing offence

Its okay to disagree, but its

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It is possible to stay professional while engaging in robust debate… isn’t it?

  • Social media is invaluable for peer support, discussion and idea-sharing, but tempers can fray 
  • Advice from nurses who are seasoned users of social media on how to behave professionally in online discussions
  • Tips for dealing with rudeness and how to avoid causing offence 

Picture: iStock

Social media is a routine part of what seems like everyone’s daily lives. It informs, entertains and, crucially for nurses, helps create professional connections by being a forum for debate and a place of peer support.

But what happens when you strongly disagree with a fellow professional’s views? It is possible to dissent without being rude, nasty or falling out… isn’t it?

How to disagree on social media without causing offence

‘It’s okay to disagree, but it’s the way that you do it,’ says Teresa Chinn, a nurse and social media pioneer, who set up WeNurses, an online community that now has almost 96,000 followers on Twitter and is part of the 'we' stable that includes WeDistrictNurses and WeMHNurses.

‘You cross the line when you start being personal, swearing or failing to acknowledge or respect the other person’s point of view,’ she states.

‘Sometimes people don’t come across as well as they’d thought. We need to be a bit forgiving of each other and remember it’s a conversation’

Teresa Chinn, nurse and founder of WeNurses

So while there is demonstrable scope for Twitter, say, to be a place of supportive discussion and evidence-based professional debate, there are pitfalls – and those who use the platform may well be familiar with them. Someone who is perfectly measured and courteous in a 'real-world' clinical or academic setting can be emboldened by the screen in front of them to become a keyboard warrior who is oblivious to their power to belittle.

 


Teresa Chinn, founder of online community WeNurses

This phenomenon is distinct from the arguably gender-based issue in which many women who engage in debate feel they are held to an entirely different standard to men, with attempts made to question their 'tone'.

There are simply times when someone comes across as just plain rude – when that may not have been their intention. ‘It’s about taking the professionalism you have every single day of your working life and applying it in a virtual space,’ says Ms Chinn. ‘Sometimes all it takes is someone to switch on those light bulbs. It’s not a huge leap to make, but you need to be conscious of what you’re doing and how you’re coming across.’


The power of stepping away from the discussion… and understanding we all make mistakes

Context is also critical, she believes. ‘While what you’re saying may be exactly right, if someone takes your comment and uses it in isolation and not part of a thread in a discussion, it can be taken the wrong way,’ warns Ms Chinn.

So what can you do if an online discussion takes a turn for the worse and tempers fray? ‘It can be as simple as removing yourself from the situation,’ says Ms Chinn. ‘We often forget that while social media is instant, we don’t have to be. If someone makes a comment and your blood really starts to boil, go for a walk, bake a cake, switch the computer off. Step away and do something else. You don’t have to answer instantly – or even at all.’ 


Remove yourself from the conversation if it is becoming uncomfortable. Pictiure: iStock

Another tactic is to ask someone why they hold a particular view, rather than directly challenging them on it. ‘You can say, I’d really like to see the evidence behind what you’re saying,’ says Ms Chinn. ‘In the past, I’ve also said to people, I really respect your point of view but I disagree with you. You don’t always have to agree, but be professional and apply what you know through your working life.’

She also suggests bearing in mind that sometimes people make mistakes when they’re contributing to a discussion. ‘I once missed out a ‘don’t’ in a tweet, so it came across as do. People can make errors in this space.

‘Sometimes people don’t come across as well as they’d thought. We need to be a bit forgiving of each other and remember it’s a conversation. If a comment looks odd, ask if that’s what they meant, rather than jumping on them.’


Dealing with rude comments made online

If you believe someone is rude to you during a discussion, she recommends first looking at other comments they have made. ‘Get a feel for who the person is and what they’re doing,’ says Ms Chinn. ‘If they’re consistently rude to everyone, my advice is to step away from the entire conversation. But it’s important to remember that these people are few and far between – the vast majority of nurses on social media are out to use it productively, to learn, connect, share information and support one another. Don’t let a tiny number put you off.’   

View more RCNi articles about social media and nursing

If someone’s apparently uncivil response to you seems out of character, judging on their other social media interventions, you may decide to engage in further debate. ‘If a person is being rude, when they’re usually not, we give them three chances to be respectful and polite,’ says Ms Chinn.

The WeNurses community hosts regular online discussions on topics that can often be sensitive, eliciting the airing of very diverse opinions. ‘In the eight years we’ve been doing this, we’ve only ever had serious concerns about one person,’ she says. ‘We have people who are role models by disagreeing really well, by being thoughtful and respectful of others’ opinions.’

NMC advice about using social media 

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) says it is important to consider who and what you associate with on social media. ‘For example, acknowledging someone else’s post can imply that you endorse or support their point of view,’ its guidance on social media states.  

Those who have used social media for a number of years should also consider what they have posted online in the past. ‘It is important to realise that even the strictest privacy settings have limitations. This is because, once something is online, it can be copied and redistributed,’ says the guidance.

 

Be ready to listen to others during an online debate – and be aware of who will read your posts

In the absence of any other communication cues, you may need to slightly overstate your respect, she advises. ‘You may not say it face to face because your body language communicates your respect, but you may need to say it online,’ says Ms Chinn.

Mental health nurse Vanessa Garrity runs WeMHNurses, an online community for mental health nurses and those interested in the field, which has almost 12,000 followers. The Twitter chats regularly bring service users together with mental healthcare professionals.

‘My golden rule is if you wouldn’t tell your granny or put it on the front of your local newspaper, don’t post it’

Linda McGrath, lecturer in adult nursing, University of Birmingham  

‘A lot of people think that because they are important offline, they can communicate in the same way online,’ says Ms Garrity. ‘Mental health has a history of restricting people’s liberty, so when a professional behaves on social media as if they have authority, or when they are defensive, it can create conflict.’

She advises expressing humility, openness and above all, a readiness to listen. ‘You also need to understand why someone might be angry, because of the experiences they’ve had,’ says Ms Garrity. ‘Often, it’s not directed at you personally, but the system.’

Top tips on using social media for nurses 


Picture: iStock

  • Be aware that when you’re relaxing in the privacy of your home, you may be tempted to share things that you wouldn’t do at work, says WeNurses founder Teresa Chinn. ‘The second you step online, you’re a nurse,’ she says. ‘You have to have that at the back of your mind – always. Make sure you’re behaving appropriately.’
  • If you’ve interacted with someone in the past, but they’re now coming across badly, it can be worth sending them a private direct message, asking if they’re okay, says Ms Chinn.
  • ‘If ever you’re in any doubt on social media, use a real-life analogy,’ says Ms Chinn. For example, if you had a face-to-face disagreement with someone at work, you might distance yourself for a while to give yourself time to think, or you might have a word with them privately. Do the same online, she advises.
  • But be careful about taking a tricky conversation offline immediately, advises Vanessa Garrity who runs WeMHNurses. ‘If you do it straight away, it can get people’s backs up,’ she says. ‘It can look as if you’re being defensive about others seeing the conversation online. Be subtle and nuanced in how you do it.’
  • Remember that in the virtual world, everyone is equal. ‘Being online is a democratic space, where we come together as human beings and have discussions,’ says Ms Garrity. ‘Take an issue, look at it from a variety of perspectives and try not to be defensive if someone says they’ve had a bad experience. If you don’t take that approach, you miss the magic of an online conversation.’
  • Listen as well as contribute and be wary of the echo chamber. ‘For me, the whole point of going online is not always seeking out others who hold the same views,’ says Ms Garrity. ‘You need to find those who take a more critical view of what you’re saying – that’s when you learn.’ 
  • ‘My golden rule,’ says lecturer Linda McGrath, ‘is if you wouldn’t tell your granny or put it on the front of your local newspaper, don’t post it.’

 

Always consider the human consequences of what you may write 


Nursing lecturer Linda McGrath

If you are facilitating a discussion, sometimes it’s easy to focus on the professional side and not appreciate the human consequences of policies or practices, she says. ‘But sharing lived experience online is a very difficult thing to do and you need to not just connect with it intellectually, but emotionally too,’ says Ms Garrity.  

Often nursing students do not understand how social media can help them professionally, says Linda McGrath, a lecturer in adult nursing at the University of Birmingham. ‘We use it as a learning activity and a way of building professional networks. Until we introduce them to that idea, many don’t realise the possibilities,’ she says. ‘They can learn a lot.’  

The university actively encourages them to take part in Twitter chats, including through WeNurses and to use online resources. ‘If they do want to be on Twitter in a personal capacity, I advise them to have two accounts: one personal, one professional,’ says Ms McGrath.

If things begin to turn nasty during a chat, she advises students to remind themselves how they would handle a similar situation in person. ‘Debates should be respectful and evidence-based. You can try referring the other person to guidelines, explain why you don’t agree or just walk away,’ says Ms McGrath.

‘It’s difficult to disagree online and things can get out of hand. But it’s possible, as long as everyone imagines they’re in a room with the other person, in a professional capacity.’


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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