Matters to a Degree

"Everyone and their mother is on Facebook," posted one of my friends on the social networking site. He's right. While many graduate students belonged to the first wave of Facebook users, social networking is becoming increasingly intergenerational. It's even taking root in our lexicon with the New Oxford American Dictionary naming "unfriend" the 2009 word of the year.

You are no doubt aware that social networking sites can ease communication among large, far-flung groups of friends. (I found out my friend was giving birth when her husband posted that he was going to the hospital and would return as a father.) For graduate students who uproot for their education, social networking can be a critical way to stay in touch with friends and family.

At the same time, social networking poses unique challenges for psychology graduate students. Posting updates that are personal or unprofessional may have consequences later on as you search for jobs or internships. For those in clinical fields, social networking opens the door to multiple relationships with clients. Compounding the problem, your advisers and supervisors may be unfamiliar with social networking and unable to guide you on the types of communication that are inappropriate.

So, how can you use such sites as Facebook or MySpace in a responsible, professional manner while also taking advantage of social networking's benefits? An important first step is understanding your privacy controls. These sites allow users to make different types of information available to different friends. Consider tagging professional contacts as "professional" and blocking them from seeing, for example, your spring break pictures. Also take advantage of options that allow you to make your profile unsearchable so that only people you contact can be your "friend."

You may consider creating multiple profiles, one that is private for close friends, and one that is for more distant or professional contacts. Or you may keep your professional contacts on one site, such as LinkedIn, and put your personal contacts on a site such as Facebook.

You also should develop a policy for people with whom you do not want to connect. You may want to talk to your supervisors to develop policies about whether it's appropriate to accept friend requests from your students or clients. Then, share your policies in your syllabus, first lecture or the confidentiality discussion of a first psychotherapy session.

Even if you police your privacy settings vigilantly, remember that anything you post on your profiles can get out to the larger Internet community. So, think twice before posting pictures from your bachelorette party if you don't want future employers to see them. And while you may want to share with your friends your first choice in internship sites, remember that the training director from your No. 2 site may see it. Overall, I advise students to keep their posts professional, unless they explicitly create a personal account with limited connections and no explicit links to their name—and even then, proceed with caution.

That's not to warn students off of social networks. In addition to keeping you connected with your friends, social networking sites can keep you abreast of new findings, student-related advocacy efforts and opportunities for grant funding. By joining APAGS on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you can also connect with other graduate students and discuss how to responsibly use your social networking profiles—or any other issue that affects you as a psychology student. For good or ill, social networking is a powerful tool, and it appears to be here to stay, so use it thoughtfully.