The widespread use of online social networks such as Facebook is partly responsible for the way communication is changing in society.1 Facebook was created in 2004 and was originally intended for use by undergraduate students with a valid college e-mail address, a restriction that provided some privacy for students posting information. By 2008, Facebook had expanded to include anyone ≥ 13 years of age with a valid e-mail address and has grown since then to approximately 1 billion members worldwide, with approximately 18% of those active members being in Canada and the United States.2 In March 2013, Facebook reported that over one half (618 million) of their active users accessed their Facebook profile daily.2 Additionally, Facebook market penetration (ie, percentage of the population which was active users) had reached approximately 53% in the United States and Canada.2
There are many benefits to Facebook: it allows one to reconnect with old acquaintances; connect with new friends, peers, and colleagues; share information with others; and form groups with people who have common goals or interests.3 For example, professional groups where colleagues discuss work issues have become popular, perhaps by helping professionals cope with the demands of their work, especially when they live in a remote location or are too busy to get together in person.4 Many businesses are also realizing the benefits of Facebook as a marketing tool. Having a Facebook page allows customers and clients to access information on their own time and receive in-the-moment updates about events or products.5
Despite the many benefits, inherent risks for individuals using Facebook were identified early in the lay literature including job loss, academic penalty, loss of reputation, and threats to personal security (eg, theft, fraud, and bullying).6 For professionals and aspiring professionals, consequences are potentially compounded by posting content that risks the individual's and the profession's public image and reputation.7,8 Specifically, society expects a higher standard of behavior from professionals (ie, those who are members of a regulatory body in their area of expertise) in return for the status and privileges they enjoy, including self-regulation and a monopoly over their area of service.9 Professionals are governed by a code of ethics and practice standards. As a profession governed by a code of ethics and regulated by self-set standards of practice, veterinarians are likely to be a profession that is held to this higher standard of behavior.
Previous studies7,8,10–12 have shown that although most professionals and aspiring professionals post more or less benign day-to-day comments on Facebook, a minority of posts may be considered inappropriate to share publicly and may be reputation damaging rather than enhancing. Personal and professional lives are likely to increasingly overlap for veterinarians as clinics use Facebook for marketing purposes and veterinarians use Facebook in their personal lives. In addition to the benefits, understanding the risks associated with Facebook will allow veterinarians to enjoy social networking and avoid potential pitfalls that could be harmful professionally.
The veterinary profession has historically enjoyed a good public image in Canada and the United States. Veterinarians have been rated as among the top 10 most trustworthy,13 honest, and ethical14 professionals by the general public and are rated much higher by pet owners specifically.15 As veterinarians continue to expand their role in society with positions in public health, food safety, animal agriculture, policy development, education, research, and private practice,16 it becomes even more important for the profession to build and maintain trust with both pet owners and the broader public.
The purpose of the study reported here was to evaluate the potential risks Facebook may pose to the veterinary profession. Specifically, our objectives were to explore publicly available content found on early-career veterinarians’ Facebook profiles and to consider the reputation risks to the individual, his or her practice, and the veterinary profession. In addition, we sought to provide a professional development opportunity in the form of reflective questions to be used by veterinary personnel to self-monitor their communications on Facebook and other social media.
PASW, version 18.0.0, Chicago, Ill.
ATLAS.ti scientific software, version WIN 16.2.16, ATLAS.ti Scientific Software Development GmbH, Berlin, Germany.
Employment demographic statistics for general membership, College of Veterinarians of Ontario, Guelph, ON, Canada: Unpublished data, 2011.
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Prioritized reflective questions for Internet-posting decisions by veterinary personnel.
|1. Nonmaleficence (avoid harming others)||Could this post damage my reputation?|
|Could this post hurt my colleagues or my clients?|
|Could this post damage public trust in the profession?|
|2. Beneficence (promoting good)||Could I modify this post in a way that will benefit my clients, the veterinary profession, and me?|
|Could this post be misinterpreted by others?|
|3. Autonomy (self-monitoring and choice)||Does this post break any societal laws, professional regulations, or both?|
|Should I defer posting this information until I've slept on it?|
|4. Justice (fairness and treating people equally)||Before posting to a friend's wall: would I post this comment or photo to my own wall?|
|Would I be pleased or annoyed if someone posted this information to my own Facebook profile?|