Why are people more vicious online?
Know someone who won't stop leaving rude, offensive comments on your blog or social media page? Relationships counsellor Elly Taylor explains what goes on inside the mind of an online bully.
What makes an 'internet troll', troll?
There is an emotional pay-off for people who troll that motivates them to do it. Some may get a sense of empowerment from trampling on others’ feelings, others a sense of being part of a small group when they get kudos for their comments from a few like-minded people. Some crave attention. At the bottom of all this though, someone who is motivated to troll has a very low self esteem.
How do they feel once they’ve attacked someone online?
It depends on what they were emotionally motivated by as to what the payoff is. Someone desperate for attention or recognition will get it. It may be bad attention, but for some people that’s better than none at all. We see the same thing in children, they would rather misbehave to ‘be seen’ than be ignored. Someone with a low self-worth will put others down to build themselves up, will say outrageous things (and get approval from others with a low sense of self-worth). Maybe they feel a sense of mastery when they come up with something they think is clever or brave and hit the send button. Maybe it’s that they feel marginalised or victimised in their lives and this is a way of getting revenge. Problem is all these feelings are transient, they don’t last and so the person will have to do it again and again, trying to get shreds of those positive payoffs to prop up a fragile self-esteem, rather than doing it in a healthy way.
How do they feel in their ‘normal’ day to day lives?
Bullies tend to have a low level of self-awareness. They will try to convince themselves that they are OK with themselves, but at a deeper level they usually have a sense of being powerless or inadequate. The bullying is a way of proving to themselves that they are not.
Road ragers sometimes use their anger to dissociate from feelings of anxiety and helplessness – could it be the same for trolls?
Yes. Anger is what we call both a primary and secondary emotion. Primary emotions are the vulnerable ones we often feel first but don’t acknowledge to ourselves. For example, if someone narrowly cut in front of us in traffic, we would feel a jolt of fear but what we would find ourselves doing is abusing the other driver – we’re more aware of the anger, which actually comes second to the fear but covers it up. Chronically angry people are usually covering up a lot of stuff – both to themselves, and to others. There’s a saying “hurt people hurt people”.
If they do feel powerless or have low self worth, did these feelings start in childhood? Or do they just creep up on a person?
Our sense of who we are as a person and what we are capable of becoming starts in childhood but it’s a fluid thing, shaped by other influences too, say a critical teacher at school, teasing during adolescence or even a controlling lover in your 20’s. In childhood, it’s largely due to how we were parented. Shaming is the biggest factor in low self-esteem and unfortunately it is a very common disciplinary tool. Making a child feel ashamed for who they are, as opposed to what they did (as in: “you are hopeless/stupid/an idiot, you should know better” vs. “what you did was silly, I’m sure you can do better next time”), sets a poor foundation for a child’s future stages of development. Children believe their parents. If you tell a child they are hopeless they will take it on board and it will affect their ability to learn. One of the next stages is the development of empathy, another thing that trolls have a complete lack of. In fact they get a perverse sense of pleasure from creating conflict, discomfort or distress. Again, one of the biggest influences is from parents who discouraged or shamed children for feeling or expressing their own natural emotions of hurt or sadness. If we are not treated with compassion we may not develop compassion for ourselves and then by extension, for others.
A lot of trolls like to say “you’ve got nothing better to do” to the person they are trolling– are they projecting?
Probably. Projection is another consequence of a low level of self awareness. It’s when we have awareness of a particular trait, quality or attitude because we actually possess it, but rather than acknowledge it’s a part of us because we feel ashamed of it (there’s the shame again), we “disown it”. Whatever we disown in ourselves, we are more sensitive to in other people, or we will “read into” their motives or behaviour. People with lower levels of self-awareness tend to assume that everyone operates the same way they do and have a hard time accepting that they may be different. They tend to blame others for what would normally be their own, internal reaction instead.
What is the best way to deal with a troll?
Ignore them just like you would discourage attention-seeking behaviour in children. Give all the attention to the person who has been wronged instead.
Are trolls likely to be bullies in real life?
I think the online element reduces inhibitions. It’s a bit like the over-reactions people can have when they’re driving, like swearing or fist waving that they wouldn’t do if they were face to face with someone. I think the anonymity of online interactions provides an element of protection, so we are capable of more extreme behaviour. If you think of an internet troll as being full of bad feelings (they are not happy people), I imagine the opportunity to vent these emotions combined with a sense of power or pleasure from making others feel bad instead is a big part of the appeal. I feel very sorry for them.
Can trolls ever be reformed?
Behaviour is largely determined by mood. If the bitterness is coming from something like an underlying depression and that is identified and treated, it’s definitely possible. I’ve had clients look back on their former selves with disbelief, hardly comprehending what they were capable of at a particular time in their lives. Empathy, like all the developmental stages, can be taught, but unfortunately it often takes a crisis to motivate people to want to learn. When it does happen, the work is to improve a person’s relationship with themselves, as all other relationships are a reflection of this. If person who is trolling is somehow able to develop a friendship with themselves, the urge to troll will go away.