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The psychology behind people who troll online and cyberbully

When Cardi B, her family, and her friends or collaborators (such as Lil Kim, Lizzo and Kylie Jenner) are being targeted on social media, she often slams back unreservedly. But on 3 April 2022, she stepped away from her social media after a disagreement with her followers regarding her absence at this year’s Grammy Awards. In her last messages, she said she hates “this f—in’ dumbass fan base” and that she needs to “protect herself.” This is the third time Cardi B has quit her social media over the last couple of years after conflicts with her fans.

Over the years, many people including celebrities have decided to take a break from their social media accounts. The reason is often to protect themselves against online conflict and abuse, a phenomenon that has become so prevalent it has popularised terms such as trolling and cyberbullying.

About online trolling and cyberbullying

Online trolling is when users post comments or content designed to be hostile, argumentative or conflictual about a specific person. People who engage in this behaviour don’t necessarily know their target person.

Cyberbullying is when users send messages or even content about a specific person in order to deliberately hurt and make that person feel sad or embarrassed. People who engage in this behaviour do so repeatedly and they often know the person they target.

These practices usually take place in private messaging, social networks or public comment sections, perpetrated by users who often hide behind the anonymity that the internet can provide.

Such behaviours harm other people and leave them vulnerable, powerless, and humiliated. Among other physical and psychological consequences, people who are targeted often get depressed, their sleep is disrupted, and they may even resort to suicide. As for the people who act this way, they might gain attention or entertain themselves temporarily, but in the long run they harm relationships, isolate themselves from others, and stay trapped in their harmful patterns and disconnected self.

Why some people troll online or cyberbully

As people we all have an inherent desire to be close to others. We feel the need to connect and form relationships because they are important for our mental health, emotional wellbeing, and even our survival. Technology and social media give us a unique opportunity nowadays to connect with many more people and foster these relationships we all so crave. So, why do some people behave this way?

In psychology, several behaviours have been identified and named maladaptive coping mechanisms. Coping, because people engage them in order to respond to situations and meet their needs, and maladaptive, because they go about this in a harmful way to themselves and/or others.

Blaming and criticising others, attempting to control other people through direct means to achieve what they want, seeking attention or status, backstabbing and complaining are just some examples of such behaviours. These are overcompensatory behaviours, i.e. we act in the opposite way to how we feel. People develop these coping modes to mask how they really feel in their life and to avoid contact with themes they have associated with pain.

These themes (and subsequently, these coping modes) develop over time as a person grows up. Essentially, they form a style they came up with as children to manage their childhood difficulties. Therefore, when it comes to trolling or cyberbullying these themes and behaviours tell us more about the perpetrator’s upbringing and life experiences than they do about the person they are targeting.

For example, if someone regularly feels vulnerable and suffers from low self-esteem because they grew up with people who constantly shamed them or overpowered them, by acting this way in their adult life, they create an opportunity for themselves to feel in control and powerful. So, they successfully manage to gratify and meet their need of feeling invulnerable and important when they behave this way – a need that was not adequately met when they were children. However, they are doing this in an unhealthy and maladaptive way and in the process, they also harm other people. So in other words, these people are traumatised and they go about life traumatising others.

What can we do if we engage in such behaviours and what can we do if we are the target of people who act this way?

People who engage in these maladaptive behaviours often lack insight of themselves. They may not be aware of the meaning and seriousness of such behaviours, both for themselves as well as others. At the same time, these behaviours are interconnected with other complex factors, such as parenting style, upbringing and life experiences. As a result, there is no quick solution to online trolling and cyberbullying behaviour.

Creating laws to ensure safe online experiences while protecting free speech is an area where legislators need to tread carefully but definitely something they need to work out. But as a psychologist, my interest (and hope) lies in the power (and responsibility) of the person.

We are adaptable precisely because, as human beings, we are still a work in progress. But we need to awaken our consciousness and become accountable for our behaviour. Only then we can heal what hurts inside, rebuild a healthier and more compassionate relationship with ourselves, learn more efficient ways to communicate with others, and meet our needs in an adaptive way. Then we are in a position to extend the benefits of this work to other people. It isn’t easy, but it is vital to do this work both for ourselves as well as for the world we live in and create for our children. Anger and divisiveness form our current reality and this will not change if we don’t strive to find and heal ourselves, as well as build our resilience. This is a long-term investment and goal but the only way to fundamentally address this issue.

In the meantime, there are two things we can do right now to best manage (but not solve!) online trolling and cyberbullying. Firstly, we can ignore such behaviours to avoid reinforcing them by reacting. This way, we avoid giving attention to the people who engage in such behaviours as we know this is often what they are after. Secondly, just by being kind to other people in general, both in person as well as in the digital sphere, we model such behaviour and it might even reach and reward a random good act of someone who is likely to engage in trolling and/or cyberbullying. This increases the chances of them behaving in a kind and pleasant way rather than in a harmful one.

That said, I would put my money on the long game. 

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