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April 20, 2015
by Juliana Fruhling,MA-MFT, RCC

The Trolls That Don't Live Under a Bridge: Understanding the Threat of Online Trolling

April 20, 2015 05:55 by Juliana Fruhling,MA-MFT, RCC

In recent times, with the increased use of social media and the internet as a primary source of interaction between individuals, we have also seen an increase in something that has come to be known as “trolling”. Trolling is defined as an online activity where “individuals actively seek to disrupt and cause problems for their own satisfaction or enjoyment” (Pulman & Taylor, 2012), and individuals who engage in trolling are commonly referred to as “trolls”. In the traditional sense, trolling implies intentional disruption or aggravation, but some have argued that whether intent is present or not, behaviours like this should be considered “trolling”. The steep increase of this form of sadism has researchers turning their attention toward understanding what is causing people to seek out this form of “entertainment”, and how to protect those who are being victimized by it - sometimes to the point of being afraid for their lives, or even seeking to end them.

Trolling Defined

Trolling as a pastime has been formally recognized as an attention-seeking behaviour, the perpetrators of which have been compared to fishermen - baiting and putting out a line in hopes that they might get a “bite”. Once a person seeking to put out their opinions or engage in a conversation online has “bitten”, often the troll will taunt and target this person, seeking to victimize them while remaining anonymous behind their computer screen. The “safety” of anonymity can often bring out the darker side of humanity, as indeed we have seen in many cases of cyber-bullying, which trolling efforts can evolve into, once a troll has targeted a particular individual or group of individuals. However, in those who regularly engage in trolling, recent studies have found links to anti-social personality disorders, as well as sadistic or psychopathological traits (Bishop, 2013). A troll will sometimes even apply themselves to learn everything they can about the person from their online profiles in social media, and use this information to target the person, or their family and community.

Trolling in the Media

One recent case of trolling that is particularly sad and disturbing began in 2010 when 17-year-old named Alexis Pilkington committed suicide, and a tribute page was set up on Facebook in her honour. It wasn’t long before online trolls invaded the public page, posting disturbing images, referencing hangings and generally seeking to traumatize her family and friends with their comments. Another example of trolling that turned dangerous and threatening is the case of Anita Sarkeesian, a well-known video game blogger whose comments about sexism in video games opened up a massive onslaught from trolls who attacked her in various ways, posting vicious personal comments, threats against her life and even going so far as to claim they had her address and were going to come to her home and kill her and her family. This level of  threatening behaviour is often perpetrated simply to cause fear and terror and a disruption in the life of the individual being targeted, however all threats of this caliber must be taken seriously and reported to police, as this one was.

Towards Prevention

Perhaps due to the relative newness and anonymity of this form of harassment, it is difficult for authorities to protect people from becoming the targets of online onslaughts from trolls, and remaining offline and out of the public eye is simply not a viable option for many people in this day and age. Currently legal recourse is difficult, since “few can be pursued or punished unless the wronged individuals are able to prove that the perpetrators have committed an illegal act” (Pulman & Taylor, 2012). However, as this problem has increased, more and more lawmakers and police departments have turned their attention to creating cyber-crime departments, training detectives with the skills to seek out and penalize online perpetrators. Until this is a more widespread practice, however, it is up to online users to ensure to protect themselves and their loved ones as much as possible from this type of cyber-criminality. Often the best recourse, as many researchers would agree, is no recourse at all. Many websites which host forums where public opinions can be aired are branded with the moniker - “don’t feed the trolls!” This is an attempt to prevent people from ‘taking the bait”, essentially, by asking them simply not to respond to trolling comments - comments that are controversial but not respectfully so, comments that venture beyond the topic and morph into personal attacks, and those that do not add anything helpful or interesting to the discussion. Ignoring the trolls and not taking the bait can be difficult, however, especially for those who feel strongly about seeking justice or making their opinions or feelings clearly understood. In that case, says Bishop (2014) it can be important for victims to be aware of the needs or emotional reactions that are being triggered by the comment or attack, and seek to soothe those needs or reactions in healthy and safe ways. Blasting back at the troll online will often not result in that need being met, as the troll on the other side is unlikely to receive it in a productive way, and is more likely to be encouraged at the rise he or she was able to get in response to his or her initial comment - a fact which many victims have learned the hard way. 

Unfinished Business

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who has pioneered much of the current research on grief and anger reactions, once said that if anger lasts longer than seven seconds it is most likely connected to unfinished business (1969). Those who can sit with an anger response generated by the harassment of an online troll for a few seconds and let it dissipate, if possible, often find increased resiliency and success in dealing with such types of online harassment. If the anger does not dissipate in that time chances are good that, as Kübler-Ross has said, it is likely connected to something else, some piece of "unfinished business". Victims of this type of deeper response can find solace in recognizing this and finding safe resolution of this elsewhere, such as with a qualified therapist. Where harassment and trolling venture into the realm of becoming threatening, however, as in the case of Anita Sarkeesian, they should be taken seriously, and the authorities must become involved.

The unpredictable and often sadistic effects of online, anonymous trolling can be very harmful indeed, and research in the direction of prevention and protection for victims of this type of online harassment continues, even as incidents of it increase. Currently self-awareness and a person's refusal to "feed" trolls by engaging online with them remain the best tools for protection against this particularly cruel form of cyber attention-seeking.


Bishop, J. (2013). The effect of de-individuation of the Internet Troller on Criminal Procedure implementation: An interview with a Hater. International Journal of Cyber Criminology, 7(1). 28-48.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Pulman, A., & Taylor, J. (2012). Munchausen by Internet: Current Research and Future Directions. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 14(4), 188-198.


About the Author

Juliana Fruhling Juliana Fruhling, MA-MFT, RCC

Juliana comes alongside her clients from a place of gentleness and empathy, respecting each person’s journey and the resiliencies which have allowed them to cope with past and present struggles, while providing a safe space for healing and change to take place.

Juliana Fruhling can be found at
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