Netiquette experts agree: Guidelines are needed on death in a digital world

by | Mar 11, 2019 | Uncategorized | 0 comments


A mother is told to go to the hospital after learning that her son has been in a bad car crash. When she arrives, the waiting area is filled with somber high school students. They knew about the crash before she did.

Social media users spread news, images and ideas like wildfire. That’s their normal. Taking away the privacy of grief and loss from someone without their knowledge or permission can have devastating consequences.

It’s time for guidelines on digital death.

Lee Poskanzer spoke recently with Dr. Carla Sofka, Professor of Social Work at Siena College and widely recognized for her work on the role of social media in coping with loss. Both have heard and experienced heartbreaking stories of what happens when people unknowingly do the wrong thing following a loss.

“We are still in the Wild West of the digital age, so people don’t know that what they’re doing can be harmful. Well-meaning people don’t know they can innocently stir up emotions, cause others to lose financial and sentimental property and even encourage fraud. The other problem is, a generation of Baby Boomers are now dealing with estate issues in the digital world. There are new and strict rules. They don’t know that the privacy laws and policies that they ‘agree to’ with a single click can now have a significant impact on their estates. It’s time for help,” said Lee.

Dr. Carla Sofka, co-editor of “Dying, Death and Grief in an Online Universe” (Springer Publishing) is a thanatologist – she studies death and grief, with a focus on thanatechnology – the use of digital technology and social media to cope with adverse life events.

“Before the digital age, there were certain socially-sanctioned rituals around death. The etiquette around funeral services, periods of mourning and ways to express support was defined,” she explained. “With the ever-evolving ways to interact via digital and social media, we’re still figuring out how to treat each other in the face of death and loss.”

To prepare for the new digital etiquette (“netiquette”)when someone passes, here are ten guidelines on grief and loss for the digital world:

1 – Think before you tweet, post or pin. If it’s not your spouse or partner, your parent or your child, a death is not your story to share. This is about privacy and personal ownership. Newspaper obituaries appear in print and online after family members are ready to share the information. Funeral homes that post funeral notices online do so with permission from the family. Digital users expect to learn and share news as it happens, but death notification is a private matter. Don’t post news unless the family has already posted it, or given express permission for you to do so. It is their story.  Also, be aware that individuals within families may differ on how they want these matters handled.

2  – Don’t sensationalize another person’s tragedy. Sharing grim details can be disturbing and painful, especially to family and friends. Images and recordings of a tragic accident, house fire or shooting, should not be posted without the express permission of the family.

3 – Find out what the family’s wishes are before posting anything. Not everyone wants their lives or their emotions to be shared online. It’s important to know what the family wants to share and what they would prefer to keep out of the public eye.

4— Be alert for fraud and tell the family if you see something online that does not seem right. Death notices are often the starting point for identity theft. Keep an eye out for impersonation of the deceased in profile posts and report them to the authorities immediately. If you know that there’s a GoFundMe site or other online effort and the family is unaware of it, let them know.  

5 – Don’t contact social media platforms about someone else’s death. Contacting websites’ Customer Service can create significant and irreversible problems. Data, photos, cryptocurrency and emails can be permanently locked out and/or destroyed when well-meaning individuals contact digital platforms.  Don’t prevent the family from taking action and carrying out the decedent’s wishes.

6 – Don’t dismiss the positive use of social media. Digital users, particularly teens, turn to social media for immediate emotional support from their online communities. By connecting with others, they feel less isolated. Try to be understanding if someone’s style of grieving is more public than yours. Family members should not discourage loved ones from reaching out to their peer groups online.

7 – Accept strangers who post respectfully—they are part of the grieving community. Dr. Sofka has coined the term “experiential empathy” to describe people who are strangers to a family or a community but connect with them online because they have a shared loss. Grieving the death of a stranger when it resonates with someone else’s individual experience may be a useful outlet, so these people should not be automatically dismissed when their comments appear.

8– Be thoughtful when sharing your message of grief and support. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been repeated so many times that it’s lost meaning. Be authentic and sincere. Share a memory. What was special about them? How did you meet, and what did you enjoy together? A short message that will remind others of what the person meant to you will be appreciated.

9 – Acts of kindness are always welcome. IRL (In Real Life) or online, it’s hard to go wrong when you are showing support, sharing grief and memories.

10 – Take proactive steps to protect your own family and your own digital assets for the unexpected. Speak with family members about your own wishes, regardless of your age or health. Look into what is most effective for accomplishing your goals.  Create a plan for managing your digital assets after your death, including how you want your family to share the news of your passing. Note that password sharing is a violation of the Terms of Service Agreement with website owners, and could result in the loss of digital assets, including photos, videos, emails, digital artifacts, cryptocurrency and more.  Consider using 3rd party services and experts in digital asset directives management to handle these personal and private matters.

Lee Poskanzer, President, DCS