Understanding Online Trolls and How to Deal with Them

Imagine, if you will, a person who goes online each day with the sole mission of triggering confrontation, provoking conflict, or cyberbullying someone. Sounds bizarre and exhausting, doesn’t it? Sadly, that’s precisely what online trolls hope to set out to do. And while trolls often target adults, when they target kids, the emotional impact can be confusing and painful. What is a troll? A troll is a person who posts inflammatory messages in an online forum to purposefully cause confusion or harm to other users online for no reason at all.

A 2021 Pew Research report found that nearly 41 percent (four in ten) of Americans have encountered online harassment. Additionally, 55 percent think it is a “major problem.” Seventy-five percent of the targets of online abuse say their most recent experience was on social media.

Bullies vs. Trolls

It’s important to differentiate bullies and trolls. While both cause harm, bullies often know their targets. Bullies, for instance, typically choose their targets deliberately. They are often acquainted with the individuals they target and focus their actions on those they believe are vulnerable or easily intimidated. The dynamics of bullying often involve an existing power dynamic or personal history, which makes it a more targeted form of harassment. This makes it all the more important for individuals to address and report bullying promptly to protect themselves and others from continued harm.

Dig Deeper: Social Media Harassment is a Real Threat. Here’s How to Protect Yourself.

Trolls, on the other hand, present a different challenge. They operate in a more chaotic and indiscriminate manner. Their primary goal is not to single out specific individuals but to create a general atmosphere of emotional turbulence and discord. Trolls employ a variety of tactics, including name-calling, body shaming, political or gender bashing, and other forms of emotional abuse, to provoke reactions and escalate tensions among online communities. Their motivation often stems from a desire to disrupt and manipulate online discussions, rather than targeting specific victims. This distinction highlights the random and unpredictable nature of their actions, as they may target strangers without any prior interaction or connection.

6 Ways to Help Kids Starve the Trolls

Helping kids understand, process, and respond in a healthy way to trolling and even cyberbullying is, no doubt, a challenge all parents face today. So, what can we do? There are a few things.

1. Prepare Them

Consider taking the time to discuss this important topic with your child. If they have yet to encounter a troll, it won’t be long. Define what a troll is, what their motives might be, and the different ways they wreak havoc online. For a few conversation starters, Google “trolls and motives.” You will find that, among other reasons, trolls incite mayhem online to attract attention, exercise control, and hurt and manipulate others. In fact, some studies show trolling is associated with (among other personality disorders) psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism.

Helping your kids understand these personalities—and not internalize a troll’s hurtful comments—will take time and consistency.

2. Use Parental Controls

One way to help your kids steer clear of trolls is parental controls. This level of software will block apps and filter websites trolls might frequent. In addition, parental controls will generate online activity reports and help parents limit screen time, both factors in reducing online conflict.

3. Teach Them to Starve the trolls

It’s human nature. We want to strike back hard and fast with an epic comeback when we’re attacked online. However, studies show that the best way to deal with a troll is to ignore or starve them. Trolls feed on angry reactions, so arguing is like serving them a chocolate sundae. Instead, consider coaching your child to take a deep breath, step away from their devices, process the troll’s motives, and lastly, not engage. This will not only starve the troll, but hopefully, it will also help your child build self-control.

4. Exercise your power

Is it tough to ignore the trolls? You bet! However, muting, blocking, and reporting is still a way for kids to exercise their power. A good reminder to relay to kids: While the internet may be free and open to everyone, your child’s profile, page, or blog belongs to them. It is not a democracy that requires them to tolerate free speech or abusive behavior. Encourage your child to exercise their power and voice by using the reporting tools—unfollow, mute, block, report—designed to help them feel secure and safe online.

5. Keeping Accounts Private

Many trolls tend to operate under anonymous names and use hidden IP addresses. For that reason, encourage your child to limit their online circles to friends only. While this may not ward off all trolls, it will reduce their chances of getting through the gates. This is especially important for children who play video games and chat online with unknown online players who may be trolls. Remind them to create private accounts on social networks and to keep all personal information private.

Dig Deeper: 10 Tips to Keep Your Data Private Online

6. Take Appropriate Action

If a trolling scenario escalates to stalking or threats, it’s critical that you report it to the appropriate authorities immediately. One excellent resource for understanding more about trolling and addressing it is the Crash Override Network, which provides a comprehensive list of resources for victims of online harassment. Keep in mind that it’s important to document the abusive behavior. Instruct your child to take screenshots of the abusive posts. This serves as evidence in case the troll attempts to edit or delete their posts later. With proof in hand, you’ll be in a better position to report the person and have their account investigated, suspended, or banned.

Online safety guidelines are not just about trolls. They should also involve educating your kid about the importance of online privacy and not sharing sensitive information online. As a parent, it’s critical to maintain open communication with your child about their online experiences. Encourage them to inform you if they encounter anything disturbing or distressing online.

Understanding Haters and Harassers

Haters and harassers are individuals who engage in persistent or repeated hostile behavior online, typically directed at a specific person. This behavior can be driven by jealousy, bigotry, or a simple desire to provoke. Unlike trolls, haters and harassers often target people they know or are familiar with in the online community. They are characterized by the intensity, persistence, and personal nature of the attacks.

It’s crucial to remember that such behavior reflects more on the hater or harasser than the victim. Their actions are often derived from their insecurities and failings. Understanding this can help your child avoid internalizing the negativity or blaming themselves for the hate or harassment they may experience.

Dealing with Haters and Harassers

One effective strategy is to ignore the hater or harasser. Like trolls, these individuals thrive on attention and engagement. Ignoring them often deprives them of the satisfaction they seek from their actions. At the same time, educate your child about the importance of not retaliating. Retaliation often fuels the harasser’s behavior and can escalate the situation further. Instead, encourage your child to report the abusive behavior, block the person, and focus on interacting with positive influences online.

Another useful approach is to help your child develop resilience. This involves equipping them with the mental and emotional tools to process the hate or harassment they encounter. Encourage your child to focus on their self-worth and the positive aspects of their life. This can help them put the negative experiences into perspective and reduce their potential impact. You can also encourage them to seek support from trusted friends or family members who can provide reassurance and advice.

Dig Deeper: Digital Strategies to Safeguard Your Child from Upsetting and Violent Content Online

Getting Help and Support

While dealing with trolls, haters, and harassers can be challenging, it’s essential to remember that support is available. There are numerous resources, organizations, and communities dedicated to helping those affected by online harassment and bullying. These include the aforementioned Crash Override Network, as well as organizations such as Cyberbullying.org and the Anti-Defamation League’s “Cyber-Safety Action Guide“.

Remember, it’s never a sign of weakness to seek help when dealing with online harassment. A support network can provide your child with the advice, reassurance, and confidence they need to navigate their online life safely and effectively.

Final Thoughts

Online safety is a crucial aspect of digital literacy that children must learn in today’s interconnected world. By understanding trolls, haters, and harassers, and equipping your child with strategies to deal with them, you’re taking significant steps to ensure their online experience is safe and positive. While the aim isn’t to shield them from every possible risk, encouraging regular conversations and providing guidance alongside software tools like McAfee parental controls can play a pivotal role in preparing them for the ever-evolving digital world.

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