Nursing studies

How to stay out of trouble when using social media

Avoid getting caught up in a Twitter pile-on – or worse – with our social media guide

Avoid getting caught up in a Twitter pile-on – or worse – by reading our social media guide for students

A nurse accessing social media via a smart phone
Picture: Alamy

With the move to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, social media use among nursing students has increased.

Many are using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to seek out nursing communities, share best practice and connect with others.

Could your social media use land you in hot water?

Some of us, however, are advised by our universities not to use social media – the fear is that we could come under scrutiny from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) if we use it in an unprofessional way. This can leave students feeling scared about the repercussions of ‘unprofessional’ online behaviour.

But in a world where social media use is commonplace, perhaps learning how to use it safely and professionally would be a better approach.

‘A good starting point before posting anything is to ask yourself “would I say the same thing in person?” If the answer is no, don’t say it online’

Social media offers many benefits for nursing students, such as opportunities to build professional networks, access to resources for continuing professional development, and peer support, which has been especially important during the pandemic to help combat feelings of social isolation.

However, it is important to remember that, even with the strictest privacy settings, anything you post online can leave a trail of breadcrumbs; a screenshot can be taken and sent far and wide within seconds.

Ensuring your posts are professional

So what does being ‘professional’ on social media actually mean? Essentially, it is about maintaining a professional image of yourself online, just as you would at university or on placement.

A good starting point before posting anything is to ask yourself “would I say the same thing in person?” If the answer is no, don’t say it online.

We are taught early in our nursing degrees about our professional obligations under the NMC code and the requirements for entering the NMC register.

So how can we make sure we are using our voices constructively online while also remaining professional?

Tweeting in line with the NMC code

Below are some examples of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ in how you refer to people and situations on social media, taking into account the four elements of The Code.

Prioritise people

The Code says: ‘Treat people with kindness, respect and compassion.’

Example of a do and don't tweet

This second tweet is the right approach as it maintains confidentiality and does not look like a personal attack on a particular staff member. You are also protecting yourself – if the member of staff in question saw the first tweet and realised it was about them, it could cause a lot of upset – and by asking a question of your peers, you may end up gaining some useful hints and tips on how to cope with different personalities in the workplace.

Example of a do and don't tweet

The first tweet above is a breach of patient confidentiality, whereas the second tweet protects the patient’s identity and does not mention your clinical area. You may also gain some valuable advice from people who respond to the second tweet.

Practise effectively

The Code says: ‘Always practise in line with the best available evidence.’

Example of a do and don't tweet

The first tweet looks like an attack on your university and the nurse in practice, which could get you into trouble. But the second tweet shows how you are willing to use your initiative and develop your skills by doing your own research then sharing your learning with others.

Promote professionalism and trust

The Code says: ‘Be aware at all times of how your behaviour can affect and influence the behaviour of other people.’

Example of a do and don't tweet

The first tweet looks unprofessional – would you want your patients or colleagues to see this? As part of a profession that promotes health, we should not be advocating binge drinking.

Preserve safety

The Code says: ‘Act without delay if you believe there is a risk to patient safety or public protection.’

Never retweet or repost anything that shows patients or their families.

Report any concerns immediately via the appropriate channels, such as your university or placement area.

Social media is a powerful tool for nursing students

Although staying out of trouble on social media is important for your professional development and your mental health, I would not want to discourage you from using social media – far from it.

Used wisely, Twitter is a great platform for networking with other professionals across the world, supporting each other and staying up to date with nursing issues and innovations in clinical practice.

It is also a great way to challenge the status quo, garner the opinions of others and build a circle of influence to create the many changes that are needed for nursing students.

If you post respectfully, maintain confidentiality and the information and statements you make are evidence-based, professional and accurate, there is no reason why you should get into trouble on social media.

Simple ways to avoid getting into trouble on Twitter

  • Ask yourself, would you say this to someone’s face? If not, why post it?
  • Re-read your post to make sure that predictive text hasn’t autocorrected it to anything inappropriate, or that your post could be misinterpreted
  • Don’t post anything when you are angry. You may want to vent, but posting on impulse could lead to trouble. The last year has been particularly challenging and communication between university staff and students has been fractious at times, but sharing your problems explicitly online is not the answer
  • Do not add patients or their families as friends on social media and use privacy settings so that you cannot be easily found by patients or families
  • It is okay to document your journey as a nursing student, whether via blogging, a video diary or TikTok, but avoid posting anything that identifies your university, placement or patients. If you want to post about a colleague, always ask their permission
  • Communication between students and university staff has been difficult at times during COVID-19, with lecturers reporting increased workloads. If you are concerned about lack of contact with your personal tutor, follow the guidance and protocols for your university – which should be available in your course handbook – rather than commenting on social media
  • Be careful when ‘liking’ people’s posts. This looks like you are agreeing with what they are saying, and potentially the causes they represent or groups they are aligned with, so always think twice before pressing ‘like’