Social media: Promises and perils

With instant worldwide communication at your fingertips, sharing information through social media demands thoughtfulness and care.

You are Gen Y, part of the millennial generation. Born in the digital age between 1980 and 2000, you probably don’t remember a time when you weren’t able to use Google or Yahoo to help you with homework, to look up a definition, or check the weather so you could decide what to wear. Your generation has become so dependent on technology that on an average you send and receive 88 texts daily.1 But it’s not just your generation; many people of all ages feel “naked” without their cell phone.

The second decade of the 21st century, with its meteoric rise of new technology – such as Kindles, iPads, Fitbits, and smartphones – has also fostered the growth of many social media. In addition to Facebook, newer sites that feature photos and blogs – such as Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter – are growing in popularity. Most of these sites have been started by young creative entrepreneurs.2

Applications are multiplying by the thousands for use in education, health care, banking, government, entertainment, retail, and the home. YouTube has superb educational videos, along with all kinds of personal videos. Prestigious universities offer online classes that enable students across the globe to access great professors and topics at little or no cost.

This article reviews both sides of social media (SM): the benefits of use, as well as the inherent dangers. Improper use can cause your grades to tank before you even realize what has happened, or destroy your reputation because someone has posted a video or picture of you.

Nothing is ever truly private

To begin with, sharing information through social media demands thoughtfulness and care. Go back 20 years. A news item involving a student or a faculty member on your campus breaks out. Generally, such news is kept private long enough for administration to review the issue and determine an action plan. But today, someone posts the news on the Internet, and it immediately gets commented on, dissected, and disseminated on websites before an investigation has barely begun. Sadly, the real facts may never surface, and meanwhile peoples’ reputations have been permanently harmed.

It can happen to anyone of us. With the advent of smartphones, no one can assume that a conversation in a private home among friends and colleagues is truly private. When news can spread almost instantly, before administration or faculty have the opportunity to investigate or respond to allegations, various versions of events – with distortions and inaccuracies – can seriously damage someone’s reputation or livelihood.

Our lives are not lived in a vacuum. Someone is always listening, watching, and possibly recording. So one needs to exercise caution in actions and words, because you never know who might post something on the web.

Benefits of social media

Social media, with their speedy and efficient communication, have much good to offer the world of education. Here are a few of the potential benefits.

Fundraising for worthy projects. In 2010, Kohls, the large national department store chain, ran a Kohls Cares contest on Facebook for private schools. Mt. Ellis Academy, an Adventist school in Montana with only 70 students, entered the contest and, against all odds, won the $500,000 offered to each of the top 20 schools. They finished fourth in the top 10, with 144,006 votes. The school applied the money to repair its 50-year-old sewage system. For a few weeks, thousands around the world were united in showing support for one small academy and celebrated the joyous outcome with the students and faculty.3

Online education. Major universities such as Harvard and MIT4 are offering free noncredit classes, and learners from around the world are participating in these massive open online courses (MOOC). At a board meeting of Andrews University in March 2013, President Niels Erik Andreasen discussed MOOCs and presented thoughts on how these new trends are forcing us to rethink the concept of students being enrolled in a single university in one geographic locale. At the March 2013 meeting of the Association of Adventist Colleges and Universities, the presidents and academic deans discussed ways to collaborate so students can avail themselves of online offerings available at sister institutions in order to supplement their education.

Rapid notification of students. On small and large campuses, instant and simultaneous notification of what is happening on the campus or alerts that should be issued to the school’s family have become more and more a necessity. In many of the recent shooting incidents on campuses, texting served to alert where the crisis was taking place, thus saving lives. For less-urgent situations such as last-minute class cancellations or weather closings, blast e-mailing or texting is convenient for reaching large groups of people instantly.

Building connectivity among people of similar interests. Keeping in touch with others who share similar concerns and interests not only constructs a friendship network but also creates a professional sharing forum. David Albrecht, professor of accounting in the Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University, believes that LinkedIn has the power to enhance careers, through networking and establishing your professional profile. He suggests that “people who use social media will be in business and employed in five years and those who don’t, won’t.”5

Dangers in using social media

Some time ago, YouTube streamed a video of Harlem Shake performances by students from some Adventist colleges. Although most of the students were masked so as to be unrecognizable, the consequences of participation extended beyond the walls of the institutions concerned. Upon learning about the videos, administrators handled the situation with students in different ways, and responded to phone calls and e-mails from concerned parents and other constituents who found the videos objectionable and not reflective of Christian behavior. But damage has been done to the name of the institutions and to the church as well. Thoughtful students will think twice before joining club or hall mates in engaging in a “crazy fun thing to do with your buddies,” and worse, in sharing a video of such activities on social media.

Warren Buffet once said that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation but only five minutes to ruin it.” Students need to be cognizant that their reputation is at stake when others can take pictures of them in social situations without their knowledge or consent and post them on various social media sites. Students who are immature or whose judgment is impaired under the influence of alcohol or drugs may be unaware of how a single poor choice can become a public record that can follow them throughout their lives. Once something is posted on a website, you must assume that anyone and everyone can see it, and even if deleted, it can always be found.

Recent data reflect that even pre-professional students in medical schools are not using good judgment in their online postings. Of the responses received from 78 of the 130 U.S. medical schools surveyed, K. Chretien found that 60 percent of them reported “incidents of students posting unprofessional online content.” The conduct ranges from use of profanity (52 percent) to depiction of intoxication (39 percent). Of the 45 schools that reported an incident, 30 gave informal warnings, and three reported dismissal of students. Of 73 deans who responded to queries about formal policies, only 38 percent had policies currently in place regarding student-posted online content, but 11 percent were actively developing a policy.6

Need for online professionalism

It is not uncommon for undergraduates, medical students, and young resident physicians to change their Facebook name and privacy settings so that when they are applying for medical school, residencies, or fellowships, the program directors can’t find them. They don’t necessarily have anything in particular to hide, but they recognize the importance of separating the personal from the professional. As technologies evolve, students are quickly learning – along with the rest of the country – how to guard their cyber-identities. They look to faculty to model appropriate social media behavior and teach the importance of boundaries.

Social @ Edu – a website for “exploring strategies for social media in higher education” – reports that there are new sites like BrandYourself, Reppler, and Qnary that “offer individuals suggestions or help in creating a professional online presence.”7

Social media are here to stay. To increase professionalism in the use of social media, it is good to remind ourselves of the following:


Your university experience can be one of the best times of your life, as you expand your knowledge in so many ways and have the opportunity to make new friends and interact with your professors and classmates. Although you may be in a secular university, you can take the opportunity to exert a positive, Christian influence on your fellow students in the way you use social media for positive, life-affirming purposes. You may never see some of these people again, while a select few may become lifelong friends. It is therefore important to choose your friends carefully, so that you don’t get pulled into compromising situations. Find a church family that will support you and provide social opportunities – on Sabbath, especially, and during your free time.

Social media can be a boon to your education or a time-waster. It may allow you to stay in touch with your long-distance family or childhood friends or allow you to escape into a virtual world instead of staying grounded in real life. Guard your reputation at all times, in public or private, off-line and online, and your college years will be some of your best memories.

Rebekah Wang-Cheng (M.D., Loma Linda University) is medical director for clinical quality, Kettering Medical Center, and clinical professor of internal medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine, Ohio. E-mail:


  1. Joel Stein, “The new greatest generation: Why millennials will save us all,” Time (May 20, 2013): 28-34.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Jared Wright, “VICTORY! Mt. Ellis Academy wins with 144,000 votes,” Spectrum magazine blog, (September 4, 2010), accessed May 19, 2013.
  4. Steve Kolovich, “Massive Courses, Massive Data,” Inside Higher Ed blog, (May 3, 2013), accessed June 4, 2013.
  5. Marilyn Thomsen, “A Social Revolution,” La Sierra University Magazine, (Fall 2013): 18-21.
  6. K. Chretien, et. al., “Online posting of unprofessional content by medical students,” Journal of American Medical Association 302 (2009): 1309-14.
  7. Social @ Edu, “A year’s worth of social media in higher education” (May 12, 2013), accessed May 19, 2013.