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Claire Nielsen: Don't feed the trolls

Trolling can disrupt online communities, causing a decline in discussion participation or content contribution if members feel harassed, criticized or intimidated.

Internet trolling may be completely harmless and even in good fun, but the trolling I am referring to in this article is the ‘negative’ variety — the offensive or inflammatory comments made with the deliberate intention to provoke negative emotional responses and disrupt conversations.

Trolls often use anonymity (hiding behind an alias) with the internet as their platform to engage in behaviour that they wouldn't typically display in their face-to-face interactions. At the risk of being trolled myself for this article, it is important that I make the distinction between fun or harmless trolling (including chronic commenting), and trolling with the intention to cause harm, disorder or chaos.

There are many dangers associated with online trolling, including emotional harm: distress, anxiety, social ostracizing, loneliness and depression in victims. If the victim of the trolling is targeted repeatedly or viciously, the abusive behaviour is considered cyberbullying and may cause potential psychological trauma, PTSD and, in extreme cases, even suicide.

Trolls often spread false or misinformation to confuse or mislead others which can be particularly damaging during emergencies or public health crises.

Personal safety issues could occur if a troll escalates their online harassment efforts into targeting their victim outside of the online community through hacking, threatening, stalking or trying to locate and harm their victims.

Trolling can disrupt online communities, causing a decline in discussion participation or content contribution if members feel harassed, criticized or intimidated. This is particularly common in Facebook groups (without good moderators), other social media platforms, in online periodicals and news publications.

According to a study in Psychology Today, (harmful) internet trolling is linked to several negative personality traits such as narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, and others. Narcissism is the self-absorbed belief that one is superior, extraordinarily talented and superior over others. This trait is common in the hacking community (with those who need to brag about their exploits) and by cybertrolls, as they attempt to destroy their perceived opponents or targeted victims.

Many online trolls suffer from mental disorders characterized by antisocial, addictive, impulsive and manipulative behaviours, and they are often indifferent to the suffering of others. Other dark character traits of the cybertroll may include a predatory drive and sadistic enjoyment in the suffering or humiliation felt by others as they inflict psychological pain with no remorse or empathy. These individuals are usually classified as cyberbullies. There is an addictive level of excitement for the troll or cyberbully and they may look for bigger and bolder ways to dehumanize and push their victims into defeat.

Many platforms are good at moderating and banning negative trolling behaviour (often blocking them) but the troll can still find their way back in with a new alias or onto another platform. I worry about the vulnerability of young people who are not yet wizened to the potential harm of such individuals. We tell our kids not to ‘talk’ to anyone who they don’t actually know online, but it is impossible in the gaming communities to know who you are really playing against.

If trolling crosses over to cyberbullying, harassment or threats of violence, it is the young ones who are most vulnerable and may succumb to taking their own lives if they don’t know where to turn or how to navigate the bullying stress. It is very important that parents educate themselves about this potentially dangerous threat to our children’s online presence. Please talk to your children about the trolls and bullies on the web who are always searching for their next victims. Doing a simple Google search on cyberbullying brought up the following websites and many others: Bullying Canada, a federal government info page on cyberbullying, and National Bullying Prevention Centre.

There is a wealth of information on the web regarding trolling, harassment, cyberbullying and cyberstalking but the general consensus for avoidance is to ignore rather than engage with those who are behaving like trolls. Hence, “Don’t feed the trolls.” They are just looking for attention and someone to bite the hook, feeling empowered as soon as one engages them. I can’t help but wonder if the online platforms bring out these traits or create them?

Sometimes one becomes a troll themselves when they are trying to eliminate another troll. It is exciting to justifiably weaken or discredit an opponent online, whether it be in a social media setting, a gaming platform or commenting on articles, periodicals or videos. With a cleverly executed disparaging comment, one feels a sense of victory — feeding their need to compete and win. They will probably even get some ‘likes’ and support from other players or readers, etc.

I read an interesting article about the psychology of trolling in where the author shares how easy it was to slide down the slippery slope of becoming a troll, when his initial intention was just to weaken an existing troll — to cut him down to size. He started mirroring the original troll’s predatory behaviour with a sense of vigilantism and justification, finding new ways to destroy him to vindicate his past victims. Justice eventually became revenge. “When you become the very enemy you were fighting against, it is time to unplug.” (Jesse William McGraw).

While trolling may seem like harmless mischief to some, it can have serious and extensive effects on individuals and communities. It undermines the potential of the internet as a platform for constructive dialogue and collaboration and can contribute to a toxic online culture.

I am not an expert in this topic by any means, but I am a parent of three adult kids and have dealt with internet bullying on many occasions over the past decade or so. Also, this is an ‘Opinion’ article and intended to provide resources and be thought-provoking, encouraging more conversation on this very important topic.

Claire Nielsen is a columnist, health coach, public speaker, author and founder of The information provided in the above article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional health and medical advice. Please consult a doctor or other health-care provider if you're seeking medical advice, diagnoses and/or treatment.