Study highlights need for improved awareness of Facebook risks among veterinarians

Do you know what your veterinary colleagues are up to on Facebook? According to a study in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association (JAAHA), you might be surprised.

The study surveyed 1,594 AAHA members to learn about veterinarians' personal use of Facebook, their knowledge of privacy settings, their beliefs about professionalism and accountability online, and factors that contribute to their disclosure of information on Facebook.

After analyzing the data collected, researchers came away with a better idea of common pitfalls among veterinary Facebook users, as well as some recommended actions to prevent social networking missteps that could damage a veterinarian's or practice's reputation.

Knowledge of Facebook privacy settings lacking 

Although Facebook offers privacy settings that allow users to choose who can see their photos and posts, the study indicated that many people are unaware of the need for adjusting the settings for increased privacy. For example:

  • Twenty-two percent of responding veterinarians with Facebook profiles reported correctly that tagged photos were visible to "friends of friends" by default.
  • Nineteen percent reported correctly that their profile photo would be visible to anyone on the Internet when using default privacy settings.
  • Eight percent responded correctly that their friends list is visible to anyone on the Internet when using default settings.
  • Sixty percent either did not know how to change the information available to others through the "Newsfeed" or knew how but had not done so.

To illustrate the potentially far-reaching exposure of posting questionable photos or comments, researchers explained that when using the "friends of friends" setting on Facebook, information can travel to a minimum of 12,482 people.

Some veterinarians are naturally inclined to overshare on Facebook

The study identified a few groups of veterinary professionals who are more inclined to share too much on Facebook, including those who are more trusting, those who have a greater need for popularity, and those who are in the earlier stages of their careers. People in these groups are more prone to engaging in risky online activities such as venting about work, commenting about clinical cases or clients, and posting risqué photos.

Researchers said that this predisposition to sharing too much on Facebook may be improved with better education about the potential harm of this practice.

"Online environments may give people a sense of anonymity and invisibility that is enhanced by the lack of established social norms for online behavior," they wrote. "Nevertheless, veterinarians in this study that were aware of the consequences of posting content to Facebook were less likely to disclose personal information, which provides some indication of where efforts to reduce the risks of disclosure might be focused in the future."

Recommendations for smarter Facebook usage in the veterinary profession

Based on the results of their study, researchers proposed several suggestions for veterinary professionals to continue using Facebook while also protecting the reputations of themselves and their practices.

  • Keep personal and professional lives separate by maintaining a personal Facebook profile for communicating with family and friends, and a business page for professional contacts.
  • Consider separating Facebook friends into various lists, which gives the Facebook user control over which of their acquaintances can see certain types of content.
  • Use the Facebook privacy settings to customize the privacy level, as opposed to simply using the default settings. Consider using settings that allow only friends to view your profile.
  • Avoid venting about work or posting work-related comments on Facebook profiles.

In addition to their suggestions for individual Facebook users, researchers said regulators, professional associations, and employers can help by providing continuing education for veterinary personnel that emphasizes the real consequences of Facebook disclosure, teaches them how to protect their online images, and improves knowledge of Facebook's privacy settings.

Despite the risks involved with using Facebook, the study's authors acknowledged that social networking has a useful role to play within the veterinary profession. They just want veterinarians to exercise more caution with the information they share online. 

"Facebook poses a complex and challenging opportunity," they wrote. "It provides benefits to veterinarians as social individuals and to veterinary clinics as a practice enhancement tool, but the convergence of professional and private lives on Facebook invites risks to reputation that must be foreseen and managed."

More information

To read the full study, visit the JAAHA website.

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