Gen Z Americans do not participate in trolling behavior as much as millennials, according to new research published by the Avast Foundation. The study finds:
- Over two-thirds of American 25–34-year-olds (64%) have engaged in trolling online (defined as leaving intentionally offensive messages or insulting someone on purpose online)
- One in two (57%) acknowledge that others have been upset by their actions
- Over a third (40%) believe themselves to be considered as confrontational.
The study polled people across the U.S. between the ages of 16-55+ to understand the drivers of trolling and how activity differs across generations, locations, topics, and victims. With the number of social media users in the US increasing by 10 million from 2020-2021, the results point to the growing scale and complexity of internet discourse and the increasingly influential impacts of social platforms in enabling poor online behavior.
“Our findings show that trolling behaviour is increasingly common among our youth with the lines between opinionated and hateful commentary blurring,” says Shane Ryan, Global Executive Director of the Avast Foundation. “Today’s young people have grown up with the internet and are absorbing the behaviours they see online and replicating them. Safe and secure access to the internet is a fundamental digital right in this day and age, and its abuse will hamper progress. Educating people on their responsibility as digital citizens goes hand in hand with empowering them to enjoy their digital freedom. In this way, we can make the internet a safer place for the next generation.”
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The research points to a complex picture of trolling behavior across different generations. Key findings include:
Lines Between Strong Opinions and Trolling Behavior Are Blurring
The results reveal that American social media users are most likely to engage in bad behavior online if they have strong opinions about people in the public eye or human rights:
- Standing up to people spewing hate (30%) and exercising freedom of speech (26%) are both considered valid reasons for saying something intentionally offensive online
- One in four (24%) believe that disagreeing with someone is a good enough reason to troll
- One in two millennials are likely to target politicians with trolling behavior, with 58% using the need to hold politicians accountable to justify their actions
- Politicians seen to give support for racist (40%) and anti LGBTQ+ (35%) policies are most likely to be trolled
- Large corporations (51%) and outspoken people in the public eye (48%) are also common victims of this generation
- Anger (39%) and having strong opinions (33%) are the top motivations for engaging in trolling. In the 25-34 age group, both factors top the list for 38% of respondents.
Trolling Becoming the Accepted Norm for Social Media
As the pandemic has changed the role social platforms play in our day to day lives, the findings suggest improper online behavior is becoming expected:
- Almost a third of people (28%) agree they are more likely to be aggressive online than offline
- 68% believe that people generally are more likely to be aggressive towards someone online than in real-life
Over one in three (37%) respondents believe social media users are fair game when it comes to trolling, and (33%) that anyone on a social platform deserves any trolling behavior they experience.
The US-UK Divide
The results also highlight the differences between how US and UK citizens behave when online:
- Nearly half (44%) of American internet users admit to having engaged in intentionally offensive behavior online; this compares to 34% of UK respondents
- Politicians are the biggest victims of trolling by Americans; one in five admit to going online to express their anger towards this group compared to under one in ten in the UK
- People in the US are also two times more likely to troll friends than their British counterparts – 14% of respondents compared to 7% in the UK
- Residents of big cities are most likely to have engaged in trolling behavior. In the UK, London is the trolling capital of Britain (one in two admit to partaking in offensive activity online), and in the US, it is most prevalent in cities such as New York and LA (53% and 56%)
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To help it deliver on its long-term vision of digital freedom for all, the Avast Foundation recently announced a partnership with the Global Fund for Children. The program will invest in youth-led and youth-focused solutions tackling injustice and inequality and helping them to demonstrate good digital citizenship. This fund, whose first cohort of grant recipients will be identified by the end of this year, exemplifies how the foundation intends to work directly with communities at the grassroots level by identifying challenges and co-designing lasting solutions.
What to do if you are being trolled:
- Block and report the troll’s account(s)
- Do not engage with the troll
- Report to the social media platform
- Report to the police
- Take some time off from social media