When the internet saw its rise in prominence, many worried that people would retreat to their own corners, surrounded by people who believed exactly the way that they did. To a large extent, that has happened, as evidenced by Fox Nation and Daily Kos. But the internet also gave rise to the "troll," so-called for internet users who spout views contrary to the site's readers. And with that has come cyber-bullying.
This week, a 17-year-old teenager was delivered harassment warnings due to his harassment of Olympic diver Tom Daley. Tom Daley stated that he wanted to win the gold medal to honor his father, who died of brain cancer last year. When Daley failed to medal, the 17-year-old tweeted, "You let your dad down I hope you know that."
There has been a lot of analysis of the victims of the cyber-bullying that can run rampant on various internet websites. It has been well-documented that victims suffer from decreased self-esteem. But very little seems to be concluded about the perpetrators themselves. Who are trolls? And why do they do it?
Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, theorizes that people feel a freedom of speech that they cannot feel elsewhere, where there are few, if any, consequences. Indeed, the vast majority of people who shout venomous words in all caps on the internet do not face any repercussions. When schools, for example, try to dole out punishment for perpetrators of cyberbullying, some are met with cries of foul play.
Some trace "trolling" to the anonymity of the internet. Maybe that is true to an extent, but certainly not completely. This week, the Real Housewives of New Jersey Facebook page was littered with comments on how much they hated Milania Guidice, the five-year-old daughter of a Real Housewives cast member. All of the vitriol came from people whose names were attached to their Facebook accounts.
Many psychologists believe that the level of attacks is increased when a person cannot see the face of the person that they are attacking. One recent study found that contestants on a game show were more likely to criticize fellow contestants if they were in a different room rather than in the same one. Robert Milgram's 1950s-era experiments shed light on people who were more likely to give people potentially lethal doses of electric shock when they could not see them. Later replications of Milgram's studies found that his conclusion was less likely to be true if people identified more strongly with the student receiving the shocks.
Simon Rego, the director of psychology training at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College, explained to Health magazine that our brains are hard-wired to take into account non-verbal cues, like body language, tone, and facial expressions. On the internet, all of those cues are removed, heightening many people's response and level of discourse.
Rego suggests pausing before sending an angry email, or to envision the person on the other side. After all, many states have cyberbullying laws in place – and no Twitter exchange can be worth ending up in handcuffs.