Oh, the Things Teens Can Teach Us: Laughing at Trolls

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Sometimes doctoring teenagers teaches unexpected lessons- about myself, and about this culture. Here’s my latest lesson:

A late stage teen came in for a session, and he was explaining his strengths and lamenting his weaknesses. On social media, he is proud to say he is composed and non-reactive. He laughs things off easily. But at school, he has social anxiety and often feels like he is ready for a fistfight. He wonders why he struggles to control his emotions in his real life, while he thrives in his online life and uses healthy coping skills. In real life, he feels like people can get to him- they can make him get angry and they can cause him to react. On the internet, he doesn’t take things so seriously. When someone attacks him online, even viciously, he laughs it off. Internet trolls are a joke. They are just trying to get him to react, and he is proud of the self-control he displays there.

While he spoke, I thought about the people I know on the internet, and my presence there, and our response to trolls. An internet troll can ruin my day, even my week. Many of my Twitter and Facebook friends are over-forty professionals who spend time on social media advocating for mental health, or for other worthwhile causes, or they hop online to otherwise dedicate themselves to making the world a better place. When we encounter a troll, the troll is often making hateful comments about the most vulnerable people or circumstances- the problems we are committing to change.

And here in front of me sits a teenager who understands that life on social media isn’t real. It’s a game. People don’t always say things because they believe them; many trolls online are just entertaining themselves by yanking your chain.

To me it’s evidence that teens are smarter than we give them credit for being. Sometimes they are smarter -and better at things- than we are.

When it comes to their social culture, teens know a whole lot more than we do. They grew up with social media as a tool for their social connections, and they intuitively understand it. When we adults venture into the corners of a world that wasn’t designed for or by us, we simply don’t always get it. Experienced teens can intuit the rules when it comes to social media trolls, and we, the adults, are taking it all too seriously. Of course, younger, less experienced teens may not be so capable of coping with trolls. That’s one reason we adults need to learn to understand them better. We have to supervise and guide our kids in a world that gets the best of us.

Even when a troll is serious, he’s often still laughable. Who gets this upset and lashes out because I posted an article or a comment they didn’t agree with? If internet trolls aren’t joking, they’re still a joke. So why are they ruining my day?

Since I didn’t grow up in a social media culture, it’s not intuitive for me that trolls can’t hurt me. They can’t cause me to be upset, or ruin my day, unless I let them. It’s equally not so obvious to a 12-year-old who opens his first social media account, and cannot get the support he wants from his parents- because they are struggling to take it all in themselves.

We cannot let the trolls drive us off of social media. As advocates, there are important discussion to have. As parents, we need to stay engaged so we can support our kids in a culture made for them. We need to understand as much as possible. 

I told the teen that real life interactions aren’t much different than the ones on social media, and that we shouldn’t take real people much more seriously than the ones we encounter online. We can often laugh things off and move on. Even when people are serious, they are still sometimes ridiculous- especially when they are attempting to get us to react.

Posted on February 19, 2018 .