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If You Can’t Say Something Nice…: Dos and Don’ts of Social Media Etiquette

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A couple of weeks ago now, Hulu released the film Not Okay. In a previous blog, I wrote about how the main character, Danni, created a fake online persona to make herself popular and famous. In the end, she didn’t even like the person she was pretending to be.

And while Not Okay said a lot about how we shouldn’t try to be someone we’re not, the film also got me thinking about another important issue: social media etiquette.

When fans find out that Danni has been lying, they take to the internet in droves. Many of the comments that flash onscreen cuss her out and say she’s a terrible person. Others issue threats of violence (including rape and death). One vlogger compares her to Hitler. Two others release her home address online, encouraging serial killers to “practice” on her. Even her dad receives death threats at his place of work, because people believe he must have known somehow. (He didn’t).

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has addressed this topic. The TV movie Cyberbully, released way back in 2011 (and starring Emily Osment) tells the story of a young girl who tries to take her own life after experiencing extreme online bullying. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why spent three seasons telling audiences about the dangers of cyberbullying. And Netflix’s anthology series Black Mirror has multiple episodes exploring the effect of technology on our behaviors.

But while we might be well aware of cyberbullying’s existence, it begs the question: How much are we contributing—consciously or not—to a culture of online hatred?

Chances are, you may not even be aware of how your behavior online has impacted someone else. Perhaps you wrote a sarcastic comment in response to a friend. Maybe you shared an article about some celebrity drama you found amusing. It’s even possible that all you did was correct someone’s grammar (and as I write this, I have a nagging feeling I’ll have a typo somewhere in this article that folks will point out).

None of those things seems truly awful. But think about it a bit deeper. Your friend might know you’re just kidding and not take offense. But what if their other online friends don’t know. They could get really offended and write a heated response, sparking an entire argument. The Bible tells us not to gossip; and sharing stories about who’s dating who or breaking up with who in Hollywood certainly falls into that category. And no doubt, it hurts the people mentioned in those articles who are not only going through a rough time but also having to deal with the very public knowledge of what they’re going through.

And then there’s just the fact that we’re talking about online communication. The people we’re talking to (or about) feel more hypothetical or distant on screen than in person. We might say things on social media that we’d never tell someone when we look them in the eye. 

You can see how things can get out of hand quite quickly.

So, I’ve comprised a list of Dos and Don’ts for social media etiquette. It’s not an all-encompassing list, and you might have others you’d like to add for you and your family. But these are a first good step, we believe. Use them yourself to model good online behavior. Teach them to your kids and teens to help prevent cyberbullying. And share them with your friends and family. Because the more people who start using online manners, the sweeter our online communities will become.


1. Don’t be rude.

I’ve been told that if I wouldn’t say something in person that perhaps I shouldn’t say it online. And while that holds true, I would take it a step further, following advice from Thumper’s mom from Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Often, we feel that as long as our intentions are pure, then any advice, corrections or “playful” comments we make online will be received as such. But there’s something the internet can’t give us insight into—the other person’s state-of-mind when they read it.

When we give constructive criticism in person, we can read the room, have a private conversation and respond to the person’s emotions because we are witnessing them live. Online, there’s no telling what’s going on. Maybe your buddy had a really bad day at work, someone cut him off in traffic, his favorite sandwich shop was closed, and he came home to discover his dog had chewed up his comfiest pair of loafers. If he gets online and sees a bunch of sarcastic comments from his friends, it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, resulting in unprecedented backlash.

You should also consider your intentions when you post or comment online. Do you want people to think you’re clever, good-looking, strong, funny, popular, rich, cool, etc.? Are you hoping to be validated in some way? Are you trying to make a point or “just saying”? If the answer is yes to any of those, then don’t say it. The Bible tells us in Ephesians 4:29 “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

2. Don’t draw attention.

This advice comes three-fold.

First, it means that we shouldn’t share unflattering stories. And I’m not just talking about spreading rumors. Calling people out online to publicly shame them isn’t OK. So what if you had a really rude barista at the café today? It’s possible that the perceived rudeness was a miscommunication. Or maybe she’s a nice person but was having a bad day. Or yeah, maybe she really is just a rude person. Complaining about it online doesn’t fix the problem. And Matthew 15:11 tells us, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.”

(As a side note, don’t share bad stuff about yourself either. A study shows that teens will sometimes cyberbully themselves in order to gain attention or sympathy. But often, this just opens the door for real bullies to terrorize their victims. Plugged In’s Bob Hoose talks more about this in his article about “digital self-harm.”)

Second, it means that we shouldn’t point out something that could be potentially embarrassing. No offense, members of the Grammar Police, but I’m talking to you. If it’s for a professional publication, such as Plugged In, pointing out a spelling or grammar error is helpful (and we do appreciate when people let us know since it allows us to fix our blunders). But correcting your nephew online might just embarrass him. And it could also open the floodgates for bullies to come in and make it so much worse. So if we need to point something out, better to message the person privately so they can fix it without the public humiliation.

And third, it means don’t feed the trolls. Bob Hoose wrote another article in 2014 about how online trolls are characterized by sadism. As Batman’s butler told us in The Dark Knight, they like to watch the world burn. When we share a post, like it or comment on it, we feed the social media algorithm that makes it more likely to show up on other people’s feeds. Which means that if we comment on a troll’s post or comment on their comment for someone else’s post, we are giving them exactly what they want.

3. Don’t use hashtags.

I know that hashtags are a useful tool for marketing. And if you’re promoting a product, then they’re probably safe to use. But does your personal life really need to be marketed?

Just think about all the dangerous social media challenges we’ve heard about over the years. There was the Tide Pod Challenge in 2017—in which teens dared each other to eat the laundry detergent pods. Then there was the Bird Box Challenge, where people drove around blindfolded. And even the Coronavirus Challenge, which involved licking public toilet seats. (And while this was never officially linked to people contracting COVID-19, it’s just nasty!) All of these were born from the use of social media hashtags.

But there’s another reason not to use them—namely that they can be used to propagate cyberbullying. It comes up in a number of movies and TV shows, including Not Okay and Black Mirror.


1. Do embrace the Fruits of the Spirit.

If you’re ever wondering whether what you have to say online is worth saying at all, ask yourself: “Does this spread love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control?” If the answer is a resounding “YES!” then publish away. Chances are that people will respond favorably. It could even pull them out of their own negative social media spiral by seeing something positive instead of the usual scourge.

And if trolls bombard your posts, proceed to the second “Do.”

2. Do block haters and trolls.

Seriously, do this. Don’t hesitate. Block, snooze, unfriend—whatever it takes to remove that negativity from your life and your feed. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You don’t have to explain why (and probably shouldn’t since you’d be drawing attention if you did).

And if you have a friend whom you don’t want to “unfriend” on social media but who consistently exhibits the three “Don’t” behaviors, then proceed to the third “Do.”

3. Do reach out in person.

I recently attended a series of lectures hosted by my church where the guest speakers talked about misconceptions in our culture. One of those misconceptions is that “We are more connected now than ever.” And the main takeaway was that if we really want to connect with people—to have a personal connection—then it needs to be done in person, not online.

The professor giving the lecture urged listeners to get off their screens and go interact with family and friends. Technology-free family dinners were suggested. Keeping phones, tablets and computers out of the bedroom was strongly encouraged.

In fact, the only time he recommended using social media was as a means to communicate plans to meet in person.

“But what if a friend posts something concerning online and I’m worried?” someone asked.

“Sure, you can reply to that,” he said. “Ask them to meet up for coffee so you can talk about it.”

Sure, if your social media circles include people across the country or around the world, this isn’t always possible. But whenever it is possible, take out the screen middle-man. When you stop typing and start talking, you can communicate more effectively. You can read someone’s mood and body language. You can recognize changes in their tone or attitude. Even over the phone, you pick up more signals than you can via post.

And just as importantly, so can they. They can see the concern on your face and hear the care in your voice. If their love language is quality time or physical touch, then you’re in a position to provide that. You also remove the ability for others to comment on what you’re saying. It can be discouraging if immediately after reading a positive affirmation from a friend, you read something negative from someone else. But when we separate ourselves from the screens, we gain a level of control in the conversation.

We won’t always get social media etiquette right. And the rules can evolve as social media and technology does. But there’s no reason why we can’t adapt if we continue to apply and model these simple Dos and Don’ts.

Emily Tsiao

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.