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Social Media: Connecting Virtually

Social media, or social networking, is the 21st Century approach to connecting with others via the Internet. We have come a long way from sending messages by wire with dots and dashes over the telegraph, to currently sending wireless messages with binary codes of zeros and ones. However, the purpose is still the same - social connection.

Since social media will continue to grow as a means of sharing information, it is important to be informed about this type of social connection.

What's currently available?

There are numerous opportunities for Veterans to be socially connected on the Internet. All one has to do is use any search engine and type in “social connection websites” and a multitude of links become available. Social networking sites include personal sites like Facebook and Friendster, professional sites like LinkedIn and Academia.edu, and many special interest sites for health concerns, new moms, dating, and connecting with old high school friends.

The VA also provides opportunities to socially connect. The former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki stated, “Veterans should have consistent and convenient access to reliable VA information [in] real time using social media - whether on a smartphone or a computer.” The VA utilizes FacebookTwitter, blogsYouTube, and Flickr to connect with Veterans. And, the nation is clicking on these links to watch videos, read stories, and make their comments. Recently, the VA created a new Social Media Policy establishing a VA philosophy bout communication. Brandon Friedman, Director of Online Communication, states, “This policy sets us on a path toward changing how we talk - and listen - to Vets.”

How do we use social networking?

Most people think of social media as a way to stay in touch with family and friends. Yet, research shows that people are also making connections with complete strangers on common interest sites. People share their search for jobs, ask others about health information, and can give a thumbs up or down for messages they receive. Other studies show that people use this type of communication to get first-hand knowledge about specific national events whether they are political races or natural disasters.

What is a moderated page?

The VA follows the protocol of moderating their social networking pages. This means that all comments are reviewed for appropriate content. Any content that does not relate to the VA, or any abusive or vulgar language, hate speech, or personal attacks are not allowed on the site. This is not the case with all social media sites. It is up to individuals to review each site’s disclaimers and publishing protocols and make an informed decision on whether to participate on each site.

Why use social networking?

There are several advantages to using social media, but first on the list is increasing the opportunity to connect with other people. Additional reasons might include:

  • It’s convenient, instant, and anonymous,
  • Offers less threatening approaches to floating ideas and getting instant feedback,
  • Provides rural-based connections,
  • Allows sharing of health resources or beneficial web links, and
  • Creates a forum to offer and receive help with less judgment from others when comments or ideas are shared.

What cautions should be considered?

The most important message around this type of communication is to understand that these sites do not provide medical advice and should not be used for this purpose. Most sites include this message in their disclaimer; however, it is easy to forget when you are searching for an answer to a specific health need not to take what you see on the Internet as medical advice for you. In general, most sites, including the VA, recognize that this is a public forum, and by the nature of privacy policies, responses from commentators are more general.

Other cautions you should consider when engaging in social networking include:

  • Decide what you consider to be “private” before you post personal information,
  • Set up privacy settings on each site to increase personal control over connections,
  • Be aware that you can increase your circle of “friends” but not all of these “friends” will have friendly intentions, and
  • Remember that whatever you post - you can’t take back - and posts are available to the general public. While the VA will not collect or retain these comments, some sites do.

The future holds more access to social networking as newer technology is developed and used to interact with others. New devices to communicate will continue to be part of our everyday lives. It is up to each individual to decide how they will engage in this innovative approach to connecting with others.