Whether we like it or not, social media is part of everyday life for most of us, with an estimated 57.1 million active users in the UK alone - an estimated 85% of the entire UK population.
But being perpetually online comes with a number of risks, from cyber fraud to identity theft to being exposed to trolls. The latter is an issue that Princess Eugenie, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, is all too familiar with.
Eugenie, 33, opened up about her fears of getting trolled on social media while appearing on the White Wine Question Time podcast with host Kate Thornton.
The royal said: “I do my own Instagram and I find it the most stressful thing. Before I post, I text about five people to ask if it’s OK, am I going to get trolled?”
She recalled an incident when she accidentally wrote “your” instead of “you’re” in a post and became targeted by trolls who criticised her incorrect grammar. Eugenie said: “I freaked out. Since then I’ve been really particular.”
What is a troll?
According to anti-bullying charity Bullies Out, a “troll” is the term used for a person who “deliberately starts an argument or posts inflammatory or aggressive comments with the aim of provoking either an individual or a group into reacting”. Trolls are known to use anonymous accounts to avoid being identified.
As to why people take to trolling online, there are many different reasons behind the behaviour. The charity says on their website: “Most people troll others for either revenge, for attention-seeking, for boredom and simply for personal amusement.
“For some, they could be hitting out at people who are successful, happy, and enjoying their life because maybe the troll’s life isn’t like that. Others may troll because they’re insecure in themselves and they get a buzz out of being hurtful and negative towards someone else.”
The impact of trolling
For many people who have become the target of trolls, the impact on their mental wellbeing can be profoundly negative. Trolling is often considered a form of bullying, which can lead to mental health issues in the victims.
A 2015 study by King’s College London found that there is a substantial long-term effect from being bullied. People who fall into a “frequently bullied” category were more likely to:
Experience a range of mental health issues
Earn less money
Get into unstable relationships
David Emm, principal security researcher at cybersecurity provider Kaspersky, tells Yahoo UK that some tactics employed by trolls include “going off-topic to annoy and disrupt other users, repeatedly posting until they achieve the desired reaction, using unrelated images or memes to reply, ignoring evidence or facts that contradict their viewpoint, and adopting a dismissive or confrontational tone when interacting with others”.
“Mostly, trolls prey on emotions, which can have a devastating effect on mental health and the ability to enjoy social media freely,” he adds. |As an important rule of thumb, if someone appears to be uninterested in a genuine, good-faith discussion and seems to be provoking intentionally, it's likely they are an internet troll.”
The UK government recently passed the Online Safety Bill, which includes measures to help people fight against online abuse. It will require the biggest and most popular social media firms to provide users with tools that will allow them to better control who can interact with them, including blocking anonymous trolls.
But while the Online Safety Bill passed its final Parliamentary debate on 19 September, it has not yet become law as it is awaiting Royal Assent. Until it comes into force, people will have to learn how to protect themselves online.
How to deal with online trolls
Emm is a strong believer that ignoring trolls is the best way to protect oneself online, because these anonymous bullies “thrive on attention and emotional reactions” and engaging in “debates” with them will only “fuel their behaviour”.
Apart from that, blocking trolls is effective as this will remove their presence from your online experience, he advises. Emm adds: “Adjusting your privacy settings to limit who exactly can interact with your content is an extremely effective precautionary measure, as this will make it more challenging for trolls to target you. You should tweak your privacy setting so you can only be contacted by “friends” and always keep screenshots as evidence of any trolling or abuse, so you can report it to either the platform administrators or the police.
“This should also make us think about the type of content we share online, which can be used against us for malicious intents (such as bullying or doxing, for example). I would always urge social media users to think twice before sharing content on social media.”
Cybersecurity expert Javvad Malik, lead security awareness advocate at KnowBe4, also recommends taking the following steps to protect yourself online:
You can filter out any troll-like or offensive content.
Think before you share
Getting a second opinion can provide valuable perspective.
Utilise filtering tools
Reduce the visibility of trolling comments by using filtering tools to hide or minimise comments containing specific keywords and phrases.
Report severe trolling, harassment or threat to the social media platform or, if necessary, law enforcement agencies.
Use unique and strong passwords, enable two-factor authentication, and be cautious when opening links or attachments.
More information about social media:
When should children be on social media? Prince Harry and Meghan Markle discuss concerns (Yahoo Life UK, 6-min read)
MAFS UK’s Ella Morgan quits social media following transphobic abuse (Attitude, 3-min read)
Strictly Come Dancing trolls: Which stars have been targeted and how did they react? (Yahoo TV UK, 7-min read)