The question “what happens to your social media account when you die?” has been asked to death (pun intended). I first encountered it six years ago in the form of “what happens to your MySpace account when you die?” and now it gets updated with each new social network. It turns out that the ways people answer this question are bringing significant social change. A growing body of research suggests that social media is altering the psychology and behavior of death and mourning.

A group of British researchers outline the changes in an article in the spring edition of Omega: Journal of Death & Dying. Those changes cover almost every aspect of dying, including funerals, grief, memorialization, inheritance and archaeology. New patterns attributed to online behavior are also challenging long-held standards in the study of death about how people deal with death.

“In particular, social network sites can bring dying and grieving out of both the private and public realms and into the everyday life of social networks beyond the immediate family, and provide an audience for once private communications with the dead,” the authors wrote.

Put another way, the private conversation people used to have over the grave of a loved one is now often being directed at their Facebook page or a memorial website for all to see. Meanwhile, grieving - which traditionally has more or less been done privately in Western cultures - is now moving into the semi-public realm of social media.

The research also suggests big changes in how people diagnosed with a terminal illness are dealing with death and being treated. In the fact, a common response has been for patients to sequester themselves and cut themselves off from real-world social networks. Now, whether it be through a site like Facebook or a blog dedicated to their personal experience, those patients often remain connected to friends and family members.

To date, there has been very little research in this area. That may change rapidly as the number of older people online grows. There are also ethical questions that need to be addressed: If family members use the Internet to coordinate caregiving for a terminally ill relative who is not online, does it matter if that person can’t participate in those discussions? Are there privacy issues around such grieving on Facebook, or do such expressions of grief amount to a response like laying down flowers at a spontaneous, roadside memorial for someone killed in a car crash?

“This is part of a much bigger issue in cybersociology, namely whether the Internet produces social isolation or enhances community,” the authors wrote, noting that online guest books and memorials often result in connections between friends of the deceased who did not know each other previously. “The innovation of interactive social media is that grief is re-emerging as a communal activity, within existing social networks.”