What were they thinking?

Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

Whenever stories cross our radar involving nursing home staff posting inappropriate videos or photos of residents on social media, as they have frequently in recent months, one question is bound to follow: What on earth were they thinking?

We now have a few incredibly lackluster answers to that question, thanks to a new report from ProPublica and the Washington Post. Calling the issue a “rising threat,” the report identifies 35 incidents of employees posting photos of nursing home residents on social media since 2012; 16 of the 35 took place on Snapchat, the magical wonder app where photos and videos disappear in just seconds — except when somebody on the other end takes a screenshot. But people seem to forget that function.

Of course, these 35 cases are the ones we know about because they've made the news, or gone to court. There could be more out there, the report suggests, as the number of reported cases also jumps. There were 22 instances found in the past two years, compared to 13 in the two years prior to that.

The story then pulls out individual cases, breaking them down by what transpired in the videos (residents being coached into singing explicit rap lyrics, residents using the bathroom, residents holding signs with foul language — the list can, and does, go on and on ...) and what happened to the perpetrators after the videos were discovered. In a few rare instances, the report shared what the employees were thinking when they recorded and posted the photos or videos.

“I am aware that posting a video teasing and harassing residents is a violation of the patient Bill of Rights,” one employee wrote in a confession after posting a video to her Facebook that showed her pulling a resident's hair and taunting her. “I made a mistake in posting and recording the video. I deeply regret my actions and will never do anything like this again.”

So perhaps her confession and realization that what she did was really, really wrong came too late. At least it came at all.

A former employee of an Indiana nursing home who was charged with voyeurism after sharing nude photos of a resident admitted to making a mistake in an interview with the Washington Post. But she failed to see the issue since she didn't post the photos with malicious intent and the resident wasn't aware of what was going on.

“They just blew everything out of proportion,” she said. “It was just a picture of her butt.”

Another employee interviewed claimed she wasn't the one to post the photos, that someone else had taken her phone and done it for her. She pleaded no contest because she “was going through a very stressful time.”

So they aren't great explanations, but what really would be? The WaPo report offers the boom in social media, and nursing facilities that can't enforce cell phone bans for employees, as possible suggestions. One attorney interviewed placed the blame on young people's dependency on social media, saying “something hasn't happened now unless there's a selfie or Facebook posting about it.” I've even tossed some suggestions out, as a young person who is thoroughly flabbergasted by my fellow young people's complete lack of foresight.

If this new report is right, and the issue of nursing home employees abusing social media truly is on the rise, it should be treated like the epidemic it is. Nursing homes, even the less tech-savvy ones as the report calls out, need to be diligent in their training of new employees when it comes to social media and cell phone use on the job. We can assume all we want that employees know right from wrong, and truly care about the people they're charged with caring for, but that's not always the case (see the aforementioned Ms. “It's Just a Butt”).

The best way to ensure that your facility doesn't end up in the news for a case like this isn't just to hope that someone doesn't capture the abuse in a Snapchat screenshot — it's to make sure those photos and videos are never taken in the first place.

I truly hope the Washington Post report is wrong, and that this noted rise in nursing home social media incidents is just a statistical anomaly. Because I really don't want to play the “what on earth were they thinking?” game anymore.

Emily Mongan is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow her @emmongan.




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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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