Online safety / March 21, 2024

Building healthy relationships online

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

Person messaging on a smartphone.

Online connection and communication are primarily how we interact these days, especially for young adults. Digital natives (the generation that has grown up with the Internet) rely on digital communication to stay connected socially, meet others with similar interests and sometimes, relieve the social anxiety often associated with interacting in the real world.

How can young adults have fulfilling online interactions, friendships and even dating experiences while staying safe and protecting their privacy?

The foundations of healthy relationships – offline or online

It’s important for digital natives to understand the general foundations for healthy relationships, so they can accurately assess whether the relationships they are building online are healthy or not.

When communicating online and starting any type of relationship, it’s critical to identify what’s important to us, what we value and how we want/deserve to be treated. We also need to look at the context of the relationship (is it someone we only play online games with, someone in a community of shared interest, a friend or someone we’re interested in romantically?) to determine the parameters of the relationship and how we want to interact with that person.

According to PREVNet, a TELUS Wise founding partner, the seven characteristics of a healthy relationship are:

  • Respect: each person values and respects the other and understands/acknowledges their boundaries.
  • Safety: the relationship is a safe space physically, emotionally and psychologically.
  • Boundaries/Autonomy: each person has their own individuality, personal space and freedom to make choices.
  • Trust: there is mutual trust and reliability, creating a sense of security.
  • Caring: each person displays care, empathy and support for each other's well-being.
  • Communication: open and effective communication allows for understanding and conflict resolution.
  • Fun: the relationship includes enjoyable and lighthearted moments, fostering a sense of joy and happiness.

Relationship red flags

Online relationships are unique in the fact that often, people in the relationship don’t ever meet face to face. Their entire relationship exists in the digital realm. This reality is amazing on certain levels -- thanks to our digital world, we can now connect with people that we may not have a chance to meet in our everyday lives. But it also poses certain risks and brings up complexities that we all need to be aware of.

Most importantly, we need to trust our gut – if something feels off, it most likely is. Then, it’s critical to understand what type of behaviours are unacceptable in online relationships and what we can do to protect ourselves from malicious, emotionally unsafe, potentially abusive or dangerous situations.

MediaSmarts, also a TELUS Wise founding partner, details two types of unhealthy relationships online – abusive and exploitative.


When someone hurts, insults, scares, tries to control or pressures someone to do something they don’t want to do. This type of abuse can look like:

  • Harassing or threatening someone with unwanted texts, photos, videos or other messages
  • Keeping tabs on someone’s behaviour online (stalking in the extreme)
  • Expecting constant check ins
  • Making someone “unfriend” people
  • Pressuring someone to share when they don’t want to
  • Spreading lies or rumours
  • Sharing personal or embarrassing things


Targeting individuals that seem vulnerable and pressuring them into relationships/situations they aren’t ready for. This type of abuse can look like:

  • Showering someone with positive attention, sympathy, affection and kindness
  • Asking for inappropriate photos or messages
  • Pressuring someone to move to a private messaging app without controls or privacy

Being in the right relationships online

Beyond being aware of what constitutes a healthy relationship and red flags to watch out for, here are some additional tips that can contribute to positive and healthy online relationships:

  • Share carefully: when meeting people online, it’s important to maintain our privacy boundaries by protecting any personally identifiable information (real name, address, school or place of employment, birthday, financial information, passwords etc.). That also extends to the photos we post or share. Make sure photos don’t inadvertently reveal more than you intend (e.g. school names, street signs etc.)
  • Communicate confidently: honesty is still the best policy - even online. And so is kindness. If there are difficult things that need to be said in an online relationship, pause before responding. Also, if possible, some conversations are better had in person where there is context and non-verbal communication cues (facial expressions, body language).
  • Respect mutually: just as we need to demand respect online, we also need to show it in return. If we want our privacy, consent and preferences for sharing honoured, then we have to honour those things for other people as well.
  • Set boundaries firmly: know what is acceptable for you and share those boundaries clearly (i.e. frequency of texting, photo posting, tagging). Staying true to ourselves and being ok with saying no are vital to healthy, productive relationships online.

While connecting with people online can open us up to new experiences, perspectives and ideas, it’s important to ensure we are taking steps to protect our privacy and safety. By following general privacy practices around what’s safe to share, insisting on healthy relationships as well as identifying and removing ourselves from unhealthy relationships, we can confidently expand our worlds, possibilities and friendship circles.

Mental health
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