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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.

We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?

Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.

Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want

If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.

1. Define your goals

For leaders

Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.

Consider the following questions:

  • If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
  • How do you want members to experience the group?
  • What would be the best possible version of this group?

It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:

  • Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
  • Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
  • Meeting new people

For members

Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.

Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?

  • Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
  • Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
  • Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.

By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.

work station with laptop and devices

2. Create & communicate guidelines

For leaders

Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.

“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How you can put this into practice

Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?

HEADING: Sample group guidelines. 1) focus on your goals: we can use this group to share information about events in the multicultural center, to welcome first-year students, and to stay in touch with alumni. 2) Explain what content is acceptable: please use respectful language and stay on topic comments 3) Say how you will handle rule violations: comments in violation of these policies will be deleted 4) Choose other moderators to share the moderation process: if you have concerns about group content, message a moderator. FOOTER: Make your guidelines visible by posting them prominently. Facebook's "pinning" feature is useful for this.

It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:

  • “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
  • “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”

For members

Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”

3. Respond if people fall short of your expectations

For leaders

It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.

Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.

What this might look like

Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?

Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:

Private messages

  • “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
  • “Please refer to the community guidelines.”

Comments to redirect the group

  • “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”

For members

It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.

Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:

  • Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
  • Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
  • Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
  • Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.

serious woman using tablet

4. Intervene if the situation escalates

For leaders

What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?

For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:

1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.

“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization

“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
—Dr. Patchin

2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.

Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.

3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.

Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.

4) Reiterate your group expectations.

After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.

For members

What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:

  • If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
  • Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
  • Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.

How students are putting there practices into action

“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“I create a safe and open space where anyone is willing to make complaints, share their words, or explain their situation. I make it a place where anyone can feel at home.” —Luke M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois

“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.

Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

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