Help Your Kids Deal with Online Trolls

Thanks largely to the anonymity of the Internet, "trolls" are an all-too-common plague afflicting our online lives. Their goal is to start a ruckus by baiting unsuspecting users with offensive comments--and then they chuckle as they watch arguments unfold.

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So what is a troll, exactly? Claire Hardaker, PhD of Lancaster University gives us the textbook definition: “A user who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing, or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement."

In English: Trolls are people who pretend to take a sincere interest in an online conversation, then ask a question or make an assertion specifically intended to fan the flames of a bitter argument that ruins civility and disrupts the forum.

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Even adults have trouble dealing with trolls. And if grow-ups find themselves easily engulfed in an online argument, becoming progressively angrier with no sense of relief or closure, then what chance do kids have in this environment?

Sure, it's normal for folks to occasionally engage in online disagreements, but you have a child who makes habit of it, that can be cause for concern. After all, most kids aren't yet equipped to know how to manage their emotions and behavior in the wake of trolling. So here are some guidelines to help you to find a solution.

1. OPEN A DIALOGUE

Try to identify whether there's any trolling involved to begin with. Children--especially teens trying to define themselves and their personal beliefs--may use online arguments as a means of establishing their identity. This process can take both healthy and unhealthy forms, and here's your opportunity to introduce rules of respectful and courteous debate.

If online trolls are indeed behind the problem, then "rules of respectful and courteous debate" might not help. It's time to assess where it's happening. Depending upon the enviroment, for example, you might be able to help your child block the offensive trolls from tyhe forum entirely.

2. IDENTIFY Where it's happening

The best advice for handling trolls varies depending on where it's happening, and specifically the relative anonymity of the site in question. Some sites are completely anonymous, requiring no username or identifying information at all. At the other end of the spectrum, Facebook only deals in real legal names. Some websites use Facebook for the comment system, so people posting there are clearly identified in the real world. But most websites fall somewhere in between; a site like Tumblr requires a username but does not make real names public.

WITHOUT USERNAMES

On websites without any way to identify users, it's especially difficult to deal with trolls directly. It is not as simple as blocking or reporting a username because there is no username to report; everyone is just "anonymous." The best the website can do is block an IP address, which limits the offender from continuing to post from a specific computer... but has no effect on the troll's ability to post from a local Starbucks.

Unfortunately, the only way to play this game is not to play at all. If your child is getting caught up in Internet arguments on a site like this, you should consider making this site off limits entirely. Help him or her to find a similar website with less anonymity, where trolls aren't as entrenched.

WITH USERNAMES

When each user must use a specific username attached to a personal account, the problem becomes much easier to solve. A troublesome troll can easily be removed from your child’s life with a quick click of “block user.” This prevents your child from ever having to see the troll’s comments again. If the comments cross a line of harassment or inappropriate content, you should report the user to site administration as well. With luck, they will be banned from posting in the future.

Be aware, though, that dedicated trolls can resurface on the site with a new account or on a different computer, so this isn't always a permanent solution.

WITH REAL NAMES

Yes, trolling happens even when real names are in play. People sometimes post inflammatory comments within their own circle of acquaintances in order to provoke a reaction, even knowing that there may be social consequences.

The good news is that on sites like Facebook your child can curate their audience, creating an environment of friends and family within which they are comfortable posting without facing any cruel, baiting comments. The bad news is sometimes there are still occasional individuals ready to stir up trouble. If your wacky uncle Neil or that mysterious kid down the street is writing irksome replies to your child’s posts, you can help your child unfollow that person (which you can do without unfriending). No benefit can be gained through an online argument, especially when it can have real-life consequences.

3. KNOW THE TRIGGERS

Trolls thrive in forums where people expose hot-button topics (like political and religious opinions). But triggers can also include anything that a group is passionate about, like hobbies and music. That's why this hilariously transparent attempt to troll sci-fi fans is such a popular sort of joke online:

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Whenever a disagreement unravels regarding a topic that people are invested in, feelings are bound to be hurt. And when an individual reveals something they are deeply passionate about, a troll sees a big red button to push. A troll knows that belittling someone’s passion is the best way to provoke a response.

Personal creations are also troll magnets. It is important for your kids to know that if they post anything they made--from art to a home video--it might attract harsh comments. It's not a reflection on the quality of what they've done; it is a reflection of the terrible people online who like to tear down other people's accomplishments.

YouTube in especially rife with cruel and hurtful messages. Even (or perhaps especially) talented celebrities receive multitudinous cruel comments. In fact, receiving negative attention is, in a disturbing way, a sign of success. It means that the web content is gaining attention, even if not all of the attention is pretty. Before your child posts something personal, make sure that they know the possible consequences. Too much callous criticism can be extremely harmful to an individual and their comfort in expressing themselves.

For example, here's YouTube sensation PewDiePie, who is probably is more popular than Ben Affleck and Matt Damon combined, reading troll comments left on his channel (Warning: graphic language):

Does this mean your child should never express a personal opinion or share their creations online? Not at all. It simply means that there are varied levels of risk involved. The safest place to post something personal is within a small circle of friends that routinely supports each other, or on a highly moderated website that removes hurtful comments before they are approved to appear on the site. The places in which trolling is most likely to occur are the ones with total anonymity, where it is impossible to block trolls from using the website.

Bottom line

Whenever possible, there's one tried and true solution to trolling: block and move on.

If there is no method available for blocking the user or if there is reason to avoid it, the second-best answer is to not engage.

If your child struggles not to reply to an online troll, the remaining answer is to avoid the website entirely. In this case, you and your child may see eye-to-eye in recognizing the need to leave the website behind. Otherwise, your child may see trolling as a problem but have other reasons to want to stay on the website. As a parent, you have the ultimate say on whether or not the website needs to be removed, in which case you can install parental controls. You may also decide to respect your child’s wishes and instead help them to practice tuning out online trolls without the magical “block” button.