The internet is the place where many people go to find out information and hear about the latest happenings in the news in addition to catching up with family and friends, playing video games, and other sources of entertainment. As such, most people who have spent time reading articles have noticed the comment sections can be an angry place that is often filled with people hurling insults at one another, using offensive slurs towards others, and can be generally combative (especially if the discussion topic is in any way controversial). Forums like Reddit and other discussion-based web pages also are homes for slandering and threatening others; and you don’t need to look very far to find it! This behavior has been defined as “trolling” and is defined as someone who engages in arguments, upsets others, or distracts from an original posts message by posting provocative, tangential statements that cause uproar on the internet. While Internet trolling has become mainstream and is visible in most online places where large groups of people congregate, many are physically or emotionally harmed by the messages and insinuations of this trolling behavior.
So, what is trolling about and why do people do it? Psychologists who research human behavior have found that trolls are typically male, which is typical of most other aggressive behaviors as well. Researchers have found that those who like to troll others on the internet tend to also indicate having sadistic qualities to their personalities as well, or the pleasure of causing others pain. Those who have been studied that troll others on the internet were also showed to have less empathy than non-trolls in addition to other antisocial behavior traits as well. Researchers have studied antisocial, psychopathic, and sociopathic behavior in humans for a long time and have continued to try to figure out how some people lack the ability to empathize and care about those around them. Their conclusions usually involve a nature-nurture debate and discussion which indicates that some of these patterns of behavior may be biological, while others may be the result of lacking quality attachment to secure caregivers.
Often when someone engages in behavior that is deliberately designed to hurt someone else like bullying, trolling, or other physically violent behaviors, professionals will attempt to discover how that person feels about themselves and their own lives first. Aggressive and harmful behavior is often a byproduct of someone not feeling confident in themselves and their own abilities; pointing out the struggles or limitations of others can build up their confidence, thus making them feel powerful and secure at the expense of someone else. For someone who feels powerless, hopeless, or helpless in their everyday life, having the anonymity of the internet as a way to hide from their own insecurities can allow someone to feel powerful for a couple reasons. On one hand, it can feel less real when arguing with someone on the internet; when a person is behind a computer screen it can often feel less like the person on the other side is real and can be harmed by the words used. In addition to this, being behind a screen can allow someone to assume an identity that is not their own that they see as more powerful than they could ever be. Both of these things can cause people to feel little remorse about their behavior, no matter how much they are hurting the people on the other side.
Internet trolling, while it is a way to kill time, is a pointless and harmful behavior that only causes more chaos and divisiveness in the world, but that does not mean it is going to stop any time soon. If you, or someone you know, engages in internet trolling, it may be worth it to think about why you do it and what you get out of it. If it’s more for the entertainment aspect and less for the harming others aspect, it may be worth it to look into other ways to keep yourself entertained that don’t involve aggressive behaviors. If you related to any of the suggestions for why trolling happens in the above paragraphs like feeling powerless and helpless in your offline life, it may be worth it to find a therapist who you can trust to help you improve your life circumstances. Mental health professionals can help you to see what this behavior is doing for you, why its maladaptive and actually harmful to your mental health and the health of others, and how you can change your behavior and your life.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events