Within 24 hours after the November 2015 attacks on Paris, thousands of people across the globe showed their support for the city by adding an overlay of the French flag to their Facebook profile photo (leveraging Facebook's Temporary Profiles feature). Not long afterward, the "grief shaming" started.

Online onlookers expressed outrage over the photos, lobbing accusations about empty gestures and narrow sympathies. In one of the more reasonable posts, one woman said she wouldn’t change her profile picture because doing so would be disrespectful of countries that are bombed regularly. Her post got hundreds of thousands of “likes.”

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Why people feel free to shame online

Shaming seems to flow more freely in the online world than in real life. New York University professor Jennifer Jacquet, PhD, the author of "Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool," went to a rally after the Paris attacks. “You’d think if anyone was going to say, ‘What about Beirut or all of the other countries that have been hit by similar tragedy?’ people would have said it then," she says. "But we were face-to-face, so of course that kind of bullying wasn’t going to happen.”

The relative anonymity of the Web means it's harder to take other people’s feelings into account, says Jacquet. And just as social media makes it effortless to join in conversations with strangers, it makes it easy to unwittingly become a shamer, she notes.

Ethicist Tauriq Moosa, writing in New Statesman, argued that people who publicly shame others may also be trying to score moral points to show how enlightened they are.

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The dangers of shaming

In teens, cyberbullying has led to anxiety, depression and even suicide, according to police and antibullying groups. (About half of all teens have been cyberbullied, and about the same percentage admit to cyberbullying, according to the SAFE Foundation, a nonprofit that serves disadvantaged children and adolescents.)

Yet the same adults who speak out against teen cyberbullying, experts say, may be willing to join a cyber-mob vilifying a faraway person who has offended them. This online pillorying has led some shaming targets to be fired; others, shunned. In his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” author Jon Ronson examines several people whose lives were ruined by social media shaming after they sent friends, say, a thoughtless joke on Twitter. The compulsion to hunt down and circulate damaging Tweets is “not just wrong, but damaging," he told CNN. "It's so corrosive.”

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Alternatives to shaming

Experts say you can help protect yourself against being shamed by not tweeting potentially offensive jokes or anything you would not want circulated to the entire world.

If you're the shamer, ethicist Moosa suggests other ways to express anger over crude or insensitive remarks, such as contributing to a charity in the offending person's name. "Even if someone did make a public fool of himself, it’s hard to support the pile-on of threats and [cruel] responses when it takes a serious toll on actual people’s lives," he writes.

If you have kids, teach them not to shame. Antibullying groups advise talking with them about cyberbullying and shaming, and setting rules. For example, tell them that texting or posting any mean remarks — or even sharing others' mean remarks — will cause them to lose their cell phone privileges. Calmly discuss how their targets might feel, suggests the nonprofit Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC). Encourage your kids to tell you if they've been cyberbullied, and contact the school, online service providers and counselors if necessary.

Jacquet argues in her book that “thoughtful” online shaming can help bring about social change and justice. But she says people should shame only institutions, not individuals.

The bottom line: Think before you shame. Author Tom Hawking, in an essay for the online magazine Flavorwire after the Paris bombing, put it this way: “It’s nonsense to insist that you’re some sort of emotional superhero and that those who don’t react like you do (or like you feel you should) are somehow inferior. The last thing the world needs at this point is for us to find new ways to be horrible to one another.”

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Kathryn Olney is a freelance writer and editor who has served as a reporter and editor for California, San Francisco and Mother Jones magazines.