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Managing the Dark Side (of Social Media)

04 July 2017 - Dr Jan Orman

Many of my consultations these days include some discussion of the distress my patients are feeling about something they have seen or something that has been said or done to them on social media. Often it’s just a misunderstanding by a sensitive and vulnerable person. But it is sometimes due to deliberate attempts by others to upset and disturb them.


Trolling is “the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose” (Buckels et al). It has become a common phenomenon. It hits the press every now and again when a celebrity becomes the specific target of a troll, or when a tragedy occurs as a result of the online bullying and harassment that is made so much more possible by the anonymity of cyberspace.

In 2014 Erin Buckels and her colleagues looked at some of the personality characteristics of “trolls”.  They specifically looked at personality characteristics from the “dark tetrad”.

The dark tetrad is a concept in psychology that started out as a triad of Machiavellianism (willingness to deceive and manipulate others), narcissism (self-obsession and egotism), and psychopathy (lack of empathy and remorse) but, more recently, has gained sadism (deriving pleasure from others’ pain) as well to complete this tetrad of evil.

It may not surprise you that Buckels’ study showed that there was a significant correlation between all four of these components of the dark tetrad and internet trolling. The correlations between sadism and trolling were particularly strong.

Elise Moreau wrote an interesting summary of the ways in which trolls go about their work on a site called "lifewire” in November of 2016  The article has been useful for me and my patients, helping us understand just what is going on in terms of “usual trolling behaviour” .

Because managing social media use has been such a topic of conversation amongst parents for some time there are a number of sites providing sound advice. For young people the Reach Out site’s information about Cyberbullying may be helpful. The Reach Out Parenting site has a number of articles aimed at helping parents teach teenagers how to manage the online world.

Bottom line of the advice is generally:

  • Use safety measures provided by the platform
  • Behave appropriately yourself
  • Identify trolls and bullies by their behaviour and DON’T ENGAGE with them and
  • Report such activity when you see it.

But, as I said earlier, it’s not always trolls that cause my patients’ grief. Sometimes it’s just a friend or a family member who doesn’t make a habit of causing upset but who has chosen their words badly or made ambiguous comments that can be too easily misinterpreted. Sometimes it’s even just a typo! If it’s that sort of situation then a second set of rules applies

  • Wait until you feel calm before you respond
  • Think about what else they might have been meaning to say as opposed to the thing you first thought
  • Talk to them rather than respond on social media or by text – this allows you to clarify the meaning of their message and prevent them from misinterpreting your response. 


“Trolls just want to have fun” Buckels E.E, Trapnell P.D, Paulhus D.L. Personality and Individual Differences 8th Feb 2014

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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