Creating a Culture of Belonging Online

Throughout my career as a sociology instructor, I have given a number of talks on social injustices, including racialization and the marginalization of minority groups. Of course, years ago the acronym that we have come to know as “DEI”, diversity, equity, and inclusion, did not exist, or at the very least, was not the household term it is today. Interestingly, the main focus of these talks has not changed very much. They have, and continue to be, centered around the concept of belonging.

Belonging is what we find at the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion and I believe should be the goal of DEI initiatives. I say this because belonging is a fundamental human need, so it’s one we can all relate to. American psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined this many years ago in his famous ‘hierarchy of needs’. Researchers have since confirmed the importance of belonging in relation to personal well-being and happiness. Belonging is a feeling of acceptance, support, and security that comes with “fitting in” and being accepted by a group.

So, let’s flip the switch and think about how it feels when you don’t belong. Perhaps you can think of a time when you felt alienated, lonely, or estranged. When you felt like an outsider. I would argue that although not everyone knows what it feels like to be marginalized due to race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, we have all likely experienced a time when we didn’t belong. And those negative feelings associated with being ‘othered’ can go a long way in helping us exercise empathy and understanding with others who are different from us.

Belonging creates a safe space for diverse groups to share ideas, take chances, and innovate. In a virtual space, creating a sense of belonging is essential for human flourishing. When approaching DEI through the lens of digital wellness, we are interested in the processes that contribute to positive online experiences and interactions. Ones that contribute to psychological safety, fairness, and inclusivity and where individuals can participate and share ideas openly in an online space. Quite simply, it means treating people with as much respect in a digital world as we would in person.



Understanding our personal biases and figuring out how we view the world is crucial because, if left unchecked, we may unknowingly make decisions or act in ways that contribute to the marginalization of others. Overcoming personal bias is not easy because it is often unconscious. Overcoming biases requires learning, reflection, and a growth mindset. It can be achieved through self-assessments, education, and pushing yourself to see multiple perspectives. In fact, the more we know about ourselves and how we view the world, the more effectively we can deal with others and support a culture of belonging, both in person and online. Not only is uncovering our own biases important, but we also need to learn how to spot bias online when we come across it. Otherwise, we risk spreading mis- and dis-information unknowingly.

Here are some general questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the writer omit important facts?
  • Are there references? Or supported claims?
  • Is the author credible? And who is the intended audience?
  • Does the story match the headline or is it “clickbait” or a hook headline?
  • Is it heavily opinionated, one-sided, or hyperbole?



Going back to the concept of belonging, being seen and heard can go a long way in terms of making a person feel included. I have been in many online meetings where comments in the chat have gone unnoticed, “raised hands” went unanswered, and hosts all but ignored people as they entered the video conferencing room. We have to ask ourselves; how can I make everyone feel welcome and included in this online space? Is everyone being given the same opportunity to speak and be heard? Intentional listening is an important strategy to foster a culture of belonging. It requires us to focus completely on what others are saying without cross-talking or interrupting. It includes giving others our full attention, without zoning out or trying to multitask. Intentional listening is a form of respect that often gets lost in an online environment.



The reality is, inequalities and injustices are just as pervasive in our online world as they are in the physical. In fact, a 2021 Canadian study found that 20% of Canadians have experienced at least one form of hate, harassment, or aggressive behavior online. Similarly, studies in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia estimate that 14-18% have been targeted by abusive content online. Bias, discrimination, and oppression are manifested online in many forms, including hate speech, cyberbullying, homophobic threats, symbols and images of hate, stereotyping, overtly racist statements, threats of physical harm or death, and racist jokes or memes.

Cyber-racism can manifest itself in what is known as a cloaked site. Cloak sites are websites that spread misinformation about the history and culture of racial and ethnic groups. A cloak site often disguises a hidden political agenda to intentionally conceal racism. It spreads propaganda in the form of blogs, forums, websites, and chat rooms, as well as social media with the aim of undermining BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Cloak sites are not easily recognizable, so having a critical eye when navigating the internet is crucial.



Matters relating to DEI require everyone to take action and it is imperative that we address any problematic or discriminatory behavior when we come across it. If you spot injustices online, inspire change through disruption. Become an ally for co-workers and friends by challenging the status quo. Raise awareness, join a movement, or get involved in school or community groups. Online associations (such as All Tech Is Human and the Digital Diversity Network) aim to advance diversity and inclusion in media and technology by offering communities of support. Organizations such as the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and YWCA have a #BlockHate campaign that encourages regulation to minimize the volume and frequency at which online hate speech and racism are spread. Many positive changes have been made but there is more work to be done. As with many things, change is slow and steady; it does not happen overnight. We’re still figuring out how to manage biases and discrimination in the physical world, let alone how to manage it in the digital world. It is an ongoing process, one that we must all share in the responsibility.


Lisa Pender, MA, is a passionate Digital Wellness educator and speaker, and is the founder of Digitally Well. She works with businesses and post-secondary institutions to provide impactful workshops, webinars, and consultations on the intersection of digital well-being and performance. Lisa is a sociology professor at Mohawk College and has been teaching in higher education for over fourteen years. She holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Waterloo, a B.A. from McMaster University, achieved her Digital Wellness Educator certification from the Digital Wellness Institute, and completed the “Mindfulness in Modern Society” certificate from McMaster University. Lisa is also a figure skating coach of 25 years who lives, volunteers, and works in the Hamilton, Ontario area. 

Connect with Lisa through her websiteInstagram or LinkedIn.