Many people may know that online or cyber bullying among children and teens in our country has become a problem in recent years, but did you know that this same meanness is now becoming more prevalent amongst adults as well? In fact, one source stated that three out of five people say that someone has been rude to them online in the past month.

I hadn’t thought too much about people’s anonymous, rude comments that I have come across on websites and blogs until this past month when two of my close friends, both part of online communities, were privy to peoples’ rants and rudeness within their respective groups. The online comments, written by people who somewhat knew the others in the group, were shockingly mean and cruel. And they were made by people who, my friends told me, were actually very “nice” people in person.

And this got me thinking: Why are people more likely to be mean online?

I began to research this and found many reasons:

  • Anonymity. When people can remain anonymous, it makes them feel as if they have the right to say whatever they think without first filtering their words.

  • People are more likely to be mean to someone they don’t see face to face. I found studies that showed people were kinder to someone who was in closer proximity to them than those who weren’t. Since social media and online forums have removed people physically from one another, inhibition about censoring their words was lowered.

  • Nonverbal cues. Many articles discussed that much of our communication is nonverbal, and without those cues – body language, tone, and inflection – people are left to guess what someone else may intend with their words. This omission, in turn, leaves huge gaps in communication, and people tend to take a more negative view of what another may have meant with their words and respond in kind.

  • The humanity of the other person is removed. When we are face-to-face conversationally with people, we are less likely to be rude because we see them for who they really are: a human being with thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When we remove our ability to remember that there is a real person on the other side of our online conversation, we are more likely to react in anger or harshness.

So how should we, as Christians, engage social media and online forums?

  • Remember you are actually speaking to another person. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, you may want to rethink saying it online.

  • Don’t react immediately in anger. We often say things in anger we don’t truly mean; We are human, and it happens. The problem with reacting in anger online is that we may not be able to take those words back, even after we’ve cooled down. Waiting until you are calm again to respond and reading your response out loud before replying may save you from backtracking later on.

  • Ask yourself: Is it worth it? I have seen many Christians getting into online battles over heavily debatable topics, and I have found myself at times wanting to engage in conversations that were less than edifying just to prove a point. But I always stop and ask myself: Is it worth it? Is it worth how others, especially non-Christians, may view me if I respond and/or engage in this conversation? Most often I come to the conclusion that it is not worth it and just keep quiet.

  • When in doubt, choose love. The Bible admonishes us as Christians, time and again, to show love to one another. It is the greatest command next to loving God. This does not mean that we cannot ever share honestly with others, but it does mean that our words, either face to face or online, should always be spoken in love, meant to build others up, not tear them down.

And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. Colossians 3:17

How have you handled damaging words online? What other suggestions would you offer?