UF med students curb Facebook entries following study

Reports of a recent study by researchers at the colleges of Medicine and Education apparently have had an impact on current UF medical students and their activity on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

After a review of UF medical students and residents found that a significant portion of them were publicizing personal information on Facebook that most physicians would never share with their patients, many cleaned up their online presence significantly.

“College has traditionally been a time in life when non-normative behaviors are considered OK,” said Dr. Lindsay Acheson Thompson, an assistant professor of general pediatrics at the College of Medicine. “I’m not sure I would want to have a permanent, public record of everything I did 10 years ago, but many of our students are creating just such a record, and they need to understand the problems this may cause.”

Thompson and several education researchers reviewed the Facebook sites of 362 students and published their findings in the Journal of Internal Medicine in July. Following public reporting of their study (dozens of television stations and newspapers reported on the study including the Atlanta Journal Constitution, St. Pete Times and California sations) researchers note that awareness of this problem has grown, and in the 12 months since the data for the study were collected, behaviors have changed at UF.

“Many of my faculty peers told me that they forwarded the article to family and friends,” Thompson said. “Reactions that we got back seemed to show a strong age-effect. Surprisingly, younger kids – mostly adolescents- said that this was ‘old news’ and that many adults had already made this obvious. Even better than this good news, many college–aged and professional students have said that they have really thought hard about what they put on their pages now. I call this a success!” 

The researchers would like to take this awareness step further, encouraging students to use social networking sites to enhance their professional identity.

“Social networking is a powerful tool,” said  Kara Dawson, associate professor in the College of Education who worked on the study. “Both teachers and doctors can use networking to their advantage but they need to create sites that reflect their professional identity.”

But future physicians may not want to reveal some of the activities researchers found in their study such as cigar smoking, “keg stands” and an affinity for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

The researchers looked up more than 800 medical students by name on Facebook, finding that 44 percent of them (for a total of 362) had profiles on the social networking service.  Only 37 percent of those students had made their Facebook entries private the most obvious safeguard against revealing too much personal information on the Web.

The Facebooking students seemed to be aware of the personal safety issues inherent in social networking: only 6 percent revealed a home address. However, students were looser with lifestyle information including sexual orientation (revealed by more than half of Facebook-using students), relationship status (revealed by 58 percent of students) and political opinions or positions (revealed by half of students).

But the numbers tell only part of the story. The researchers randomly selected 10 Facebook profiles for a more in-depth analysis, looking for hard-to-quantify items that patients or colleagues might find objectionable. Seven of the 10 included photographs in which the subject was drinking alcohol, and some form of excessive or hazardous drinking was implied in as many as half of those photos.

Facebook is full of bluster and trash talk, and college-age users may feel that these items are not to be taken seriously. Yet patients and future employers, the researchers say, may not have quite so strong a taste for irony.

“Doctors are held to a higher standard,” Thompson said. “There are stated codes of behavior that are pretty straightforward, and those standards encourage the development of a professional persona.”

Dawson says the goal of this line of research is not to discourage Facebook use but to make students aware of the demands of a professional persona. There is some evidence that students do begin to understand the impact of Facebook as they approach graduation. The study found that while 64 percent of medical students had public Facebook accounts, only 12 percent of resident physicians did.

The researchers say they have ample anecdotal evidence to show that medical schools across the nation have a similar problem.

“When we presented this at the Pediatric Academic Societies in May, we were overwhelmed with requests from pediatric program directors who wanted to know how to get their students to be more careful on Facebook,” said co-author Erik Black, a doctoral student and fellow at the College of Education. “This is a global problem, and ours is one of the first studies to address the problem head-on.”

Original story by Tim Lockette released July 10 from the UF News Bureau.