Simone Biles, considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from the gymnastics team final at the Tokyo Olympics saying she wasn’t in a good mental space to compete. The 24-year-old gymnast, who told reporters that she was “super frustrated,” added that she began “fighting all of those demons” and couldn’t overcome them.
Those demons can from inside one’s own mind, but in today’s society, they can also come in the form of internet trolls. The young gymnast’s daring feats that have earned her a vaulted place in athletic history haven’t shielded her from online hate from Internet trolls who have blasted the superstar’s muscular physique, hair, and worthiness as a role model.
Earlier this year, Biles fought back against the faceless internet trolls. In an animated video featuring Biles called “VS Trolls” released in May 2021, the gymnast journeys through a world filled with bullies and haters who shame her and rob her of her self-assuredness. The gold-medal winner eventually defeats the trolls to reclaim her confidence.
Unfortunately, in real life, many trolling victims don’t fare so well. As people spend more and more time on social media, the malevolent act of trolling has mushroomed as well. Sadly, more than 1 in 3 people have been the target of internet trolls with abusive language, threats, unsolicited images, and more, according to a 2019 survey.
What’s behind this antisocial behavior and what makes some people so mean on social media?
WHAT IS INTERNET TROLLING?
Internet trolling, a form of cyberbullying or online harassment, is defined as posting disruptive content for the purpose of causing emotional distress. Sometimes, this is for the troll’s own amusement as they take pleasure in hurting others. Trolling can occur on any social media platform or in the comments sections on any form of online content.
These hateful, insulting, divisive, offensive comments may target someone for their physical appearance, personality, political beliefs, or any aspect of their individual being. Trolls may also reveal personal information about someone—known as “doxxing”—without their consent. The anonymity provided by the Internet emboldens trolls to type things they’d likely never dare to say to someone face-to-face.
WHAT’S THE HARM OF TROLLING?
Internet trolling can take a serious toll on people. Reading negative comments about yourself can make you feel awful, hopeless, powerless, vulnerable, overwhelmed, humiliated, and worthless. This mean-spirited behavior can have devastating consequences on mental health. Being the target of trolls has been associated with increases in depression, low self-esteem, trouble sleeping, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF INTERNET TROLLS
What makes some people unleash such disruptive and distressing comments? Psychologists have been stepping up research efforts to gain insight into the psychology of internet trolls. A 2017 study in Personality and Individual Differences found that cyber-trolls tend to have high levels of psychopathy and sadism in combination with low levels of empathy. They also are more likely to be male, and researchers call the perpetrators master manipulators who enjoy causing emotional pain and distress in others. A 2019 study further explored the minds of internet trolls and found that narcissism is a common trait. And a 2021 study focused on Facebook points to what’s known as the Dark Tetrad personality factors (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sadism) as indicators of greater trolling behavior.
WHAT BRAIN IMAGING REVEALS ABOUT INTERNET TROLLING
Many of these psychological traits are associated with abnormal brain activity. Here’s a deeper look at these traits and what brain imaging shows us.
Considered a neuropsychiatric condition, psychopathy is associated with callousness, lack of empathy, impaired behavioral control, and in some cases, criminal behavior. A person with psychopathic tendencies may be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a condition that is characterized by routinely exploiting, manipulating, and taking advantage of others. Neuroimaging studies have shown that personality disorders are associated with structural and functional abnormalities in the brain.
A sadist, by definition, is someone who derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others or from humiliating people. Neuroscience shows that sadists enjoy feeling other people’s pain and watching them suffer. A functional brain imaging study in Archives of General Psychiatry on sexual sadism shows heightened activation in the frontotemporal region of the brain while sadists observe pain.
Empathy is the ability to feel other people’s feelings. It’s what helps guide us in our words and actions to avoid hurting other people. According to the lessons learned from over 200,000 brain SPECT imaging scans at Amen Clinics, low activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is associated with low levels of empathy. Logan Paul, a YouTube superstar, admitted he lacked empathy and came to Amen Clinics for a brain scan that showed decreased activity in the PFC, likely due to a head injury.
People with narcissistic personality disorder consider themselves special and typically don’t consider other people’s feelings. Narcissists may be charming and highly intelligent, but insecurity is often at the root of their bravado. According to neuroimaging research from 2013, narcissists have lower volumes of gray matter in brain areas involved in empathy.
A personality trait characterized by cunningness, emotional detachment, negative emotions, instability, and a willingness to take advantage of others, has been linked to abnormal brain activity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that when specific areas of the brain are damaged—from a concussion or traumatic brain injury, for example—the odds of Machiavellian behavior increase.
The good news is that the brain can heal—even in internet trolls. When you put the brain in a healing environment, it can change in positive ways that leads to more appropriate behavior and healthier interactions with others.
6 WAYS TO COPE WITH INTERNET TROLLS
If you’re the target of internet trolls, it can be devastating. But there are things you can do to minimize the impact of those hurtful comments and posts.
- Limit your exposure. If you’re a public figure and routinely receive hateful comments, have someone on your staff monitor the comments and posts on your social media pages.
- Ignore them. Trolls like to poke the bear and hoping to elicit a response. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Refrain from engaging in a “Twitter war” with them.
- Reply with the facts, just the facts. If trolls are spreading falsehoods about you, simply correct the inaccuracies without engaging in any sort of a personal attack.
- Block them. When things go too far and trolls threaten you or your loved ones, don’t hesitate to block them from your site.
- Lean on your positive support network. Focus your attention on creating a community of family, friends, and followers who support you. When trolls try to drag you down, your supporters can buoy your mood.
- Practice mental hygiene. The concept of mental hygiene is just as important as washing your hands. When nasty comments or negative thoughts start rolling around in your mind, challenge those thoughts. With practice, you can learn to develop healthy, rational thinking that helps you cope with those online trolls.
If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or thoughts about self-harm or suicide due to internet trolls, these feelings can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.