“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
My friend Peter Attia, a wellness and longevity expert who helps people live better lives, is dreaming up an invention to improve his own: a machine that shocks him with 100 volts of electricity every time he starts to engage with his online critics. “Every time I get attacked unfairly and answer an internet troll, it always gets worse and worse because the virtual crowd that shows up is made up of more trolls,” he told me. “But I never seem to learn.”
Attia is far from alone in his troll trouble. If you use the internet, the odds are about even that you’ll be mistreated there. A 2021 Pew Research report found that 41 percent of U.S. adults have personally experienced some form of online harassment. Fifty-five 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. I can’t think of any other area of voluntary interaction—with the possible exception of driving in rush-hour traffic—where people so frequently expose themselves to regular abuse.
But we are not helpless in the face of either online abusers or the ones flipping us off on the highway. In fact, they are mostly one and the same: bullies with personality disorders. And you can protect your happiness by dealing with them both in some tangible, practical ways.
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Without even realizing it, many internet users mistakenly assume that cyberattackers follow conventional rules of behavior. People try to reason with trolls or appeal to their better nature. These responses are similar to how you might approach a friend who’s inadvertently insulted you, or a family member who disagrees with you about something important. But trolls are not like your loved ones, and research shows that these strategies are ineffective because they misapprehend a troll’s true motives, which are usually to attract attention, exercise control, and manipulate others.
Many people who engage in online harassment are not what most of us would consider to be well-adjusted. In 2019, scholars writing in the journal Personality and Individual Differences surveyed 26 studies of internet “trolling,” cyberbullying, and related antisocial online behaviors. They found significant associations with psychopathy, Machiavellianism, sadism, and narcissism, in that order. In other words, just as you would conclude that a stranger attacking you in person is badly damaged, you can conclude the same about a stranger attacking you on social media.
But despite the fact that online jerks and offline jerks tend to be the same people, online life feels way more full of jerks than offline life. Bizarre, hostile behavior seems to be more common online than in person. According to a recent study in the American Political Science Review, Americans rate online political discussions as 50 percent more negative than offline discussions. The reason is that once abusers enter an online space, they tend to take it over. Trolls like trolling, whereas most people don’t like being trolled. So trolls are attracted to internet forums such as Twitter, where they can get their toxic jollies without much threat of being beaten up, while moral people exit—all increasing the troll-to-normal ratio over time. If you feel as though your relationship with social media has gotten worse over time, this might explain why.
Our attackers are weirdos, and the internet is a weirdo’s paradise. But for some reason, we often have trouble understanding that. Instead, we take attacks seriously and personally. One scholar has proposed that this tendency to internalize trollish insults results from a phenomenon called solipsistic introjection: reading written communication can feel like hearing a voice inside our own head. As such, a troll’s insults can be experienced as a form of self-criticism, which is hard to ignore.
Even if you want to bid the online sewer a not-so-fond adieu, your circumstances might make doing so too costly. Exiting social media today would be like getting rid of your telephone 20 years ago. And maybe you simply don’t want to be forced off social media by the trolls, any more than you would placidly accept being forced off the playground because of menacing bullies who treat it as their exclusive property.
If you need or want to participate in online communities, but you hate the abuse, here are three strategies to consider.
As a child, you were probably advised more than a few times to ignore taunts and insults. Part of this is just common sense. Way back in 1997, basically the internet’s Stone Age, a Unix handbook for systems administrators offered instruction on how to deal with a troll: “You’re an adult—you can presumably figure out some way to deal with it, such as just ignoring the person.”
This is a version of a Buddhist strategy for dealing with insults. In the Akkosa Sutta, the Buddha teaches, “Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting … is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person.” You don’t have to actively reject abuse on the internet; you can simply not receive it. When you are taunted, say to yourself, I choose not to accept these words.
I’m not going to pretend that this is easy; you can decide for yourself whether this tactic is workable for you. And in the case of threats or hate speech, you may want to make your nonreceipt more tangible by blocking the trolls, and reporting the abuse. (This remedy is imperfect at best, unfortunately, given social-media companies’ spotty record at enforcement of their own norms.)
Not receiving an insult means you cannot respond in any way (beyond, perhaps, blocking and reporting an attacker). According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British NGO, ignoring trolls is crucial for stopping abuse. This makes sense, given the evidence that trolls are seeking attention, including negative attention. Nonresponse denies them the reward they seek.
Responding to a bully on the internet or in real life—remember, they are typically the same people—is proof that they are worth your time and notice. It gives them a twisted kind of status. While a healthy person gets status from admiration for meritorious behavior, research on playground bullies finds that they seek status by showing dominance through aggression. Don’t feed this monster, in person or online. When possible, meet aggression with deafening silence.
The internet offers (at least) one important tool that makes life easier for bullies: anonymity. As both research and common sense attest, allowing users to hide their identity abets abuse. A colleague of mine, a fellow professor who holds many views outside academia’s political orthodoxy, has a particularly strong approach to dealing with trolls: Once a year, he takes a few hours to review his followers and block anyone who doesn’t use their real name.
It’s not a perfect technique, given how easily social-media users can falsify their identity and create new handles. But my friend swears that it has dramatically improved the discourse he enjoys online, because the majority of his interlocutors—positive and negative—are interacting as themselves. If you choose this route, be morally consistent and avoid being anonymous yourself. You might take the practice a step further and withdraw from conversation platforms that are anonymous by design.
What if you’re not just a victim, but a bully or troll yourself? You probably (hopefully) are not beating up kids for their milk money, but if you find that you have fallen into aggressive internet behaviors, this dark cyberside to your personality is worth addressing.
You can look for a few clues to figure out if you’re the troll. Research on internet bullies has found that they have an easier time being themselves online than in person. Ask yourself: Do you feel the same way? Also consider whether you find pleasure in insulting others without consequence and seeing them get hurt or angry; whether you enjoy the safety of anonymity when expressing your views; and whether “mobbing” and working to “cancel” others gives you a sense of satisfaction or purpose.
If this introspection leads you to admit to yourself that you have become a bit of a troll, or are voluntarily part of a culture or group that engages in online bullying, remember how it feels to be on the other side of the exchange. Ask yourself if you would want your loved ones to know what you’ve been doing on the internet.
Then take action: Repudiate anonymity completely. Declare publicly that you will never troll or bully, and ask others to hold you accountable. And if the trolling is just too tempting, make a plan to log off entirely and pull the plug on your cyberself.