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Using Social Media in a Professional Manner: A Primer for Health Psychologists

Allyson S. Hughes, M.A.
Allyson S. Hughes, M.A.

Allyson S. Hughes , M.A.

You may be wondering whether or not to take the plunge into the world of social media. For a health psychologist, the benefits of social media can be multifaceted. Social media platforms provide a diverse environment for sharing and responding to information.  Potential benefits can include promoting your research interests, getting clinical updates, highlighting accomplishments of your department, recruiting for your department, receiving endorsements for your clinical practice, and making connections with like-minded collaborators.  Social media is not just for graduate students or for early career psychologists, and not just for professors or strictly for clinicians.  Instead, social media provides opportunities for forging meaningful connections across the span of your entire career and is the perfect place for keeping up-to-date with the health psychology community.  This article will provide an example of a health organization that uses social media, the guidelines that it follows, and information regarding using social media platforms (i.e. LinkedIN, Facebook, and Twitter) in a professional manner.  If you decide to develop a social media presence, it is important to be aware of the common mistakes that professionals can make on their social media profiles.  Social media mistakes can cost you followers (members who opt to get your posting updates) and devalue your online expertise.  In this primer article, I will discuss three of the top social media mistakes: 1) choosing the wrong social media platform, 2) lacking visibility, and 3) inconsistency.

There are several examples of national and international health organizations that use social media to feature cutting edge research and broadcast public health messages. One example of this is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The CDC has Twitter accounts for many of their special interest areas including @CDCSTD, @CDCDiabetes, and @CDCGlobalHealth.  In addition, the CDC has a best practices manual to help researchers and clinicians get a professional footing in social media. Directions and suggestions outlined in the manual can guide not only the content but mode of delivery.  Guidelines exist for many domains including policies regarding social media, Facebook, online video, Twitter, and widgets.  The manuals also include lessons learned from social media so that you may reach more people and be more efficient with your time and delivery of your message. In addition, many guidelines exist for harnessing the full potential of your privacy settings. If you want to have conversations with your followers, then you need to make sure that you offer an opportunity for them to provide opinions and suggestions while also protecting their privacy.  There are also social media and internet related guidelines for clinicians who choose to converse with patients online (see Ventola, 2014 for more information).

Although social media usage is seemingly clear cut (especially after referring to the available social networking guides specifically crafted for health psychologists by health organizations), it is still very easy to make some of the more common social media mistakes. The first social media mistake is choosing the wrong social media platform.  In general, most professionals join social media to connect meaningfully with their audience and to professionally network.  In order to accomplish these goals, you need to find the best fitting social media platform for you and the audience that you intend to reach.  First, ask yourself: What do you hope to achieve by creating a social media account?  Who do you expect to interact with you?  Whom do you expect to interact with?  Overall, who are your readers and what message will you be delivering?  Next, consider the different features and restrictions of each platform.  An easy determinant of which platform to use is to decide the preferred length for your posts.  Twitter is the most restrictive, with a 140 character limit for each post, but it does allow for links and pictures to be posted.  Facebook is much less restrictive with character length of posts (63,206 characters to be exact) but remember that less is more—users prefer short posts.  LinkedIN profiles are essentially a place to connect with individuals in your field and a place to display your accomplishments (e.g., licensure, publications and skills).  The information found on a LinkedIN profile is often information that you can include on a curriculum vitae or résumé.

The second social media mistake is not making yourself visible. One way this mistake occurs is when the wrong account name is chosen.  I suggest that you choose a formal name (rather than a nickname) and promote that formal name.  I suggest using the name that you publish with or the name that is associated with your licensure.  You have to promote yourself in order to get followers and one way to do this is through self-promoting on each of your accounts.  If you decide to use social media, make sure to include a link to each of your other social media accounts so that users can follow you and connect with you on every platform that you have available.  An easy way to do this is through your email signature, “about me” profile information, or in your cover photo.  Visibility also means using the exact same name on each of your social media accounts.  In addition, be aware of existing social media sites that have a very similar name.  “Evil name twins” are a common social media phenomenon and the best plan of action is usually to distance yourself from them. I strongly suggest that you hunt for your “evil name twin” by googling yourself and the proposed name of your account.  If unprofessional information is returned, begin to think about getting creative for the name used in your social media accounts.  For example, including your job title, including your licensure, or another formal deviation of your name will allow you to distance yourself.  In general, attempt to distance yourself as much as you possibly can from your “evil name twin.”  Also be aware that making a small spelling error can also introduce some pretty unacceptable search results, such as malware websites.  Difficulty locating your social media presence may deter meaningful connections, so the easier it is to find you on social media, the better.  Another aspect of visibility is the benefit of embarking on social media is that LinkedIN, Facebook, and Twitter invest so that their websites are top returns for search engines.  For example, if you google my name (Allyson S. Hughes) the first return is LinkedIN and there is a direct link to my LinkedIN profile.

The third social media mistake is inconsistency. Social media members love consistency, which requires you to establish a reliable posting schedule. One way to accomplish consistency is to post every week at the same time.  Certain times of day may also reach more posters, while other times of day (i.e. posting in the middle of the night) may not garner many likes (Facebook allows users to click the like button as a way for people to interact about a post) or interactions.  Apps like Hootsuite can be used to schedule posts so you will not have to login every week.  Scheduling can be structured by your goals for your account.  If you are attempting to establish an academic representation of your research interests then you could have a goal of posting a peer-reviewed article each week.  If you are attempting to connect with new patients or establish your social media presence as a clinician then you could plan to have a goal of posting updates on therapy techniques or free phone apps for meditation.  Keep in mind that posting frequently will reach more people.  Be cognizant that it is important to think of your online social media presence as a work in progress and to have a schedule such that every week or every couple of days you are adding to your social media presence.  I suggest that when you make a new connection on any social media platform that you tell the account user why you are connecting with them and thank them for connecting with you. For example, you could post this message: “Thank you for connecting!  I would be happy to answer any questions that you may have!”  Accomplishing consistency establishes a professional online identity that users can trust.

In conclusion, the purpose of professional social media accounts is to make meaningful connections, which means reaching out to other members. To do this you must first find the best fitting social media platform for you and your overall social media goals.  Start slow and know that it may be easier to start becoming engaged with other users first as a way of gathering information about the online community that you want to be part of.  Many resources exist that can guide you into making a decision about which platforms to use and what to be posting on social media.  Second, make sure to become as visible as possible so that you are readily available in the world of social media.  Lastly, be consistent!  Consistency appears in many forms online but choosing the appropriate name for your accounts is a first step in the right direction.  Attempt to be consistent with not only your schedule of posting information, but also by how you interact with other members.  Avoiding the three social media mistakes will help you to make connections and have a long lasting social media presence.


Ventola, C. L. (2014). Social media and health care professionals: benefits, risks, and best practices. Pharmacy and Therapeutics39(7), 491.