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Health, Sports & Psychology
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The Internet, social media and you

Updated Tuesday, 20th April 2021

Are you aware of how your use of social media could impact your future? Dr Gemma Ryan highlights the importance of being mindful of your digital footprint.

Businessman using a tablet to searching on a search engine Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: ID 124522251 © Ojogabonitoo | In the digital age, almost all of us have a ‘digital footprint’. This is the data you leave behind when you engage with the Internet and can include social media ‘likes’, posts, pictures or emails. In other words, we have some information about us on the Internet; this could be something as simple as an email, online purchases or our social media accounts.

Health and social care professionals must make sure that they are able to justify their actions and decisions, work for the best interests of their service users and work within the confines of their employer policy. This is part of being ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’ for actions and decisions.

It is therefore important to be mindful of your digital footprint, particularly from a professional point of view. Take, for example, the health and social care profession. Healthcare Professional Targeted Googling (HCPTG) is a relatively new concept emerging in research literature. This is when patients or service users search for organisations or individual health and social care workers using the Internet. Ryan et al. (2019) discussed this concept with some members of the public and there is evidence to suggest it can have both a positive and negative affect on the perceptions of an individual or organisation.

For example, certain ‘star’ systems and ‘reviews’ can tell us how a service is performing from the user perspective or, alternatively, it can give us professional information about health and social care workers through organisational online profiles.

However, if too much of our personal information is made to be public this could provide a negative view of the person; e.g. evidence of profane language, strong political/religious views, comments about the workplace, etc. In addition, some service users might try to contact professionals through platforms such as Facebook, which could cross important boundaries between the patient/service user and professional/employee.

It is important that you have an awareness of your digital footprint and what types of information are publicly accessible. The next section encourages you to explore this in the context of online social networks and social media.

Defining online social networks

The term ‘Online Social Network (OSN)’ refers to people connecting through a range of platforms, enabling users to share personal or professional information on a profile (Ryan, 2019). ‘Online Social Media (OSM)’ places its emphasis on social relationships, but is better used to describe the media by which those relationships exist (e.g. video, photos, blogs) (Ryan, 2019). Hence, OSNs represent the platform for the online presence and the relationships within it while OSM is a facilitator and method of communication that links the online presence (Ryan, 2019). The world of social media is constantly changing with new sites and apps being added to the offering. In 2019, the most popular social networks worldwide were Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat (Statista, 2019).

Social media icons on a keyboard Creative commons image Icon Image by kropekk_pl on under Creative-Commons license

You might have heard of the following types of platform:

  • Wikis such as Wikipedia.
  • Blogs such as WordPress and Tumblr.
  • Microblogs such as Twitter.
  • Video and media platforms such as YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Reflecting on your digital footprint

Research has shown that many professionals and students training to be a professional have ‘awareness’ of their digital footprint, but when they actually examine what they share online they are surprised by the amount of information that is available (Ryan, 2017a, b). The activity below will ask you to reflect on the type of information you share with the public on social media.

Assessing your own use of social media

Please allow one hour for this activity. If you do not have a social media account, then you can complete an alternative activity focusing on decision making.

Choose one of your personal social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) to concentrate on for the following activity.

Once you have chosen one of these and without looking at your profile, answer the questions in the interactive below.

You are invited to read the Participant Information Sheet, which contains more details about a research project that is evaluating this activity and information relating to the survey.

Now view your selected social media profile as a member of the public and answer the questions below. For information on how to do this, you can view the links below:





You might be surprised by the things you thought would be available to the public, compared with those that were (i.e. what you thought you share versus what you actually share and what information about you is actually available to the public). You might now decide to change your privacy settings or behaviour online as a result of this activity. You should check and update your privacy settings frequently, especially if the platforms have made amendments or updates to these policies. You can revisit this tool at any time in the future to help you think about what you 'think' you share, compared to what you 'actually' share.

If you would like some more information about how to change and manage your profile settings you might find the following resources helpful:

Please help us improve this learning resource

The Open University is conducting a research project to improve this learning resource and understand e-professionalism further. If you are a nursing student, nursing associate student or registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, we are interested in your thoughts. If you completed the scored quiz, you will need to note the two scores you received (as percentages). For your time and effort, you may be rewarded with an Amazon e-voucher of up to £10. To complete the survey, please click here.




Ryan, G.S., Jackson, J. and Cornock, M. (2019) ‘Exploring public perspectives of e-professionalism in nursing’, Nursing Management, 26(6), pp. 275–91.

Ryan, G.S. (2019) ‘e-Professionalism and nurse education’, in Dyson, S. and McCallister, M. (eds.) Routledge International Handbook of Nurse Education. UK: Routledge.

Ryan, G.S. (2017a) Online social networks and the pre-registration student nurse: a focus on professional accountability. Available at: (Accessed: 22 July 2019).

Ryan, G.S. (2017b) ‘What do nurses do in professional Facebook groups and how can we explain their behaviours’, RCN International Research Conference. Oxford, UK, 5-7 April 2017.

Statista (2019) Global active usage penetration of leading social networks as of February 2019. Available at: (Accessed 22 January 2020).


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