Imagine, if you will, a person goes online each day with the sole mission to trigger confrontation and provoke conflict. Sounds bizarre and exhausting, doesn’t it? Sadly, that’s precisely what online trolls hope 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) 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. Trolls, however, amplify the emotional complexity of online harassment by targeting strangers. Their goal is to anger and exhaust people with name-calling, body shaming, political or gender bashing, and other forms of emotional abuse.
Helping kids understand, process, and respond in a healthy way to this kind of cruel behavior is, no doubt, a challenge all parents face today. So, what can we do? There are a few things.
6 Ways to Help Kids Starve the Trolls
1. Prepare. 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. 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 screentime, both factors in reducing online conflict.
3. 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, 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. Make 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.
6. Take appropriate action. If a trolling situation escalates to stalking or threats, report it to authorities immediately. A great place to learn more about trolling is the Crash Override Network, an exhaustive list of resources for victims of online harassment. Note: Be sure to take screenshots of the abusive posts, so you have proof in case the person attempts to edit or delete them.
It’s easy to forget that each time your child logs into a device, they step into a literal worldwide web of strangers with diverse behaviors and agendas. Taking time to talk about trolls—before your kids rush to scroll Tik Tok or play Fortnite—will help equip them to deal with this growing threat.