Navigating Social Media

By: Jone Tiffany

Since the emergence of social media platforms in 2004, there has been an exponential increase in the number of nurses using these sites. Social media sites provide nurses with a unique lens through which to view and interact with information.

Roughly two thirds of US adults (68 percent) now report they are Facebook users, and roughly three quarters of those users access Facebook on a daily basis. With the exception of persons 65 and older, a majority of Americans, across a wide range of demographic groups, now use Facebook (Smith & Anderson, 2018). Reporting on a Pew Research Center survey of US adults, Smith and Anderson point to pronounced differences in the use of various social media platforms withinthe younger adult population. Americans ages 18 to 24 are substantially more likely to use platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, even when compared with those in their mid to late 20s. These differences are especially notable when it comes to Snapchat: 78 percent of 18 to 24 year olds are Snapchat users, but that number falls to 54 percent among those ages 25 to 29.

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN, 2018), “Social media can benefit health care in a variety of ways, including fostering professional connections, promoting timely communication with patients and family members, and educating and informing consumers and health care professionals” (p. 4). When used properly and within the framework of patient confidentiality, social media can be beneficial.

Many hospitals have policies regarding use of social media in the workplace, but the policies may not cover the use of social media outside of work on personally owned computers, tablets, and smartphones. That is where a nurse is likely to face the consequences of inappropriate use of social media platforms.

Patient privacy is of the utmost importance and relates to the expectation that individuals will be treated with respect and dignity. Patients will need to be confident that their personal information is not being utilized in inappropriate ways and that they can trust their caregivers to keep personal information private. Federal law reinforces and further defines privacy through the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Under HIPAA, any protected (personal) patient information that is disclosed can only be shared on a need to know basis. Nurses may breach patient privacy inadvertently through what they feel are vague posts to social media sites. If the comments or photos in a post describe the patient in sufficient detail for the patient to be identified, that can be seen as a breach of confidentiality. At times, what starts out to be a sharing of feelings and frustrations may end up as a breach of HIPAA.

HIPAA social media guidelines are explained in a post on the HIPAA journal website (2018). It states that privacy rules disallow the use of any protected health information (PHI) on social media sites. “That includes any text about specific patients as well as images or videos that could result in a patient being identified.” Such information can only be allowed where there is written patient consent. Information that is allowed includes medical research, marketing messages, news about events, and tips to improve health.

There are many resources on this topic on the NCSBN website. There is a brochure titled “A Nurse’s Guide to the Use of Social Media,” as well as a video titled “Social Media Guidelines for Nurses.” These and other resources pertaining to social media offer guidelines for nursing students and practicing nurses. The video also offers scenarios of inappropriate social media use as well as information and examples of appropriate use of social media in health care.

The abundant resources available on the topic can help ensure that nursing students and practicing nurses have proper education in the appropriate use of social media sites. Although social media platforms afford nurses an opportunity to connect with others, it is important that this use is appropriate and HIPAA compliant. The NCSBN brochure, video, and other resources should be required reading/viewing for all nursing students and practicing nurses. When used appropriately, social media sites can be beneficial to patients and nurses, offering a plethora of health care information.


HIPAA Journal. (2018, March 12). HIPAA social media rules. Retrieved from

National Council of State Boards of Nursing. (2018). A nurse’s guide to the use of social media. Retrieved from

Smith, A., & Anderson, M. (2018, March 1). Social media use in 2018. Pew Research Center Retrieved from

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