Keyboards and Stethoscopes: A reflection on digital etiquette in medical school

February 26th marks the 47th anniversary of the landmark freedom of speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines. This case concerned a group of students who wished to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. When their school banned the armbands to quash the protest, the students decided to sue, and the case made it to the United States Supreme Court. In the final ruling, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” When writing his response, Justice Fortas probably didn’t imagine the digital age that we would be living in just half a century later.

Thanks to the power of the Internet, people can connect from thousands of miles away and ideas can go viral in mere seconds. The freedom of expression that the Internet affords us is practically limitless. The Internet can bring greater awareness to important humanitarian issues like ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge, but its power as a terrorist recruitment tool can also be harnessed to spread chaos and destruction.

I wonder, as medical students, what our responsibilities are towards using social media responsibly, and how we balance these responsibilities without sacrificing our freedom of speech. In observing our class Facebook page and reflecting on my own bevy of social media faux pas, I have come up with the following five suggestions that I believe strike a balance between our professional responsibilities as medical students and our First Amendment rights.

  1. If something on Facebook offends you, have a face-to-face conversation with the person who posted the content. Avoid writing an angry response or a long rant, which can perpetuate further miscommunication. If a face-to-face conversation is not possible, give yourself a cooling off period before you respond.
  2. Never take down someone’s post without first talking to him or her about it. In our class, we’ve had a few situations where administrators of our group pages have taken down posts that they deem to be offensive or inappropriate. Conceivably, this was done to protect the integrity of the group and keep our Facebook page a “safe space”, but in reality, taking down someone’s post violates their freedom of speech and can make them feel unsafe. Before choosing the safety of the many over the safety of the few, talk to the person who posted questionable content and see if they will alter or possibly remove their post on their own.
  3. No babysitters! School administrators and faculty should not “babysit” class Facebook groups. A class Facebook page should be about fostering a sense of camaraderie amongst students, not about representing a school’s public identity. Therefore, the page should be private, and it should be the collective property of the students who chose to use it. Should disputes arise, they should be settled amongst students. Administrators should avoid getting involved in social media disputes unless they are directly asked to step in. Handling miscommunications and managing uncomfortable situations with our colleagues is important training for our professional careers.
  4. It’s okay to be a backstage comedian. Though this is likely my most controversial suggestion, I strongly believe that in our high-stress lives as students, and later as physicians, we benefit from being able to let off steam in a protected environment. A few months ago, we received a rather outrageous and somewhat distasteful lecture from some guest speakers. Not surprisingly, certain members of our class took to Facebook to share their “fond memories” of this unforgettable class. Somehow, the school administration was alerted to this content, and the students were asked to remove their posts. It’s only natural that from time to time, we’re going to find humor in something that happens in school or in the workplace. I think that it’s healthy to derive enjoyment and levity from these occurrences. In his writing, Immanuel Kant argues that laughter at an event is not a show of superiority, but rather an acknowledgement that the event differed from any reasonable expectations. Acknowledging the comedy of a situation is not at odds with our professional identities when it helps us to process and move on with overwhelming or uncomfortable events.
  5. Express yourself! I love when my classmates post articles that they find that I would have never otherwise discovered, or when a discussion from class spills over onto Facebook page. It makes me feel like I’m part of a community of people who value learning and exploration, and I have learned a lot from these posts.

Reach out to me on the MSPress Facebook page! I would love to hear your thoughts on Facebook and social media etiquette in medical school.

Featured image:
Der Blogger… by Dennis Skley

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