What’s the difference between cyberbullying and online trolling?

Emma McGowan 4 Aug 2022

The online world has made it possible for more people to express their opinions and have them be heard, but it also opens up a whole new world of bullying.

Perhaps more than anything else, the contemporary internet is a Place for Opinions. We’ve even come up with entirely new terminologies for the different ways you can argue online. Flame wars. Sealioning. Reply guys. And, of course, trolling.

While the meaning of trolling has become generalized to mean something close to “bullying” as it has gained more mainstream traction, it’s actually a very specific type of cyberbullying. Trolling is when someone purposefully says something inflammatory, upsetting, rude, and usually off-topic in order to derail a conversation people are having online. 

A troll is the guy who pops into a conversation between a group of geologists to declare that the earth is flat or the person on 4chan who posts swastikas “4 the lulz.” Usually their goal is to wreak havoc, while hurting people’s feelings is the secondary bonus. The primary goal of a bully, on the other hand, is usually to tear someone down. 

But regardless of the goal, people get hurt online by both run-of-the-mill bullies and havoc-seeking trolls. As a result, it doesn’t really matter what the intention of the jerk behind the keyboard was, because the impact is largely the same. 

Cyberbullying statistics

Oftentimes when we talk about cyberbullying, we’re talking about children and teens. That’s because our pre-internet definition of bullying has almost always been based on what happens “on the playground,” or between children. According to research conducted in 2019 by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 36.5% of middle and high school students have been cyberbullied at some point in their life.

But cyberbullying happens to people of all ages. You could even argue that trolling is often the grown-up evolution of cyberbullying, so if you’re an adult and you’ve been the victim of cyberbullying or trolling, you’re not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of American adults have experienced some kind of online harassment and 75% have seen cyberbullying occur.

How to stop cyberbullying and trolling

Cyberbullying and trolling happen across the internet — just check out any comments section of a major newspaper and you’ll see that even “reputable” sites have to deal with it. But, unsurprisingly, most cyberbullying and trolling happens on social media and through multiplayer video games. Here’s what to do if you encounter it in the wild.

1. Don’t feed the trolls. 

That’s a phrase that mainly has to do with “traditional” trolling, i.e. people who are just trying to stir stuff up. They’re more common on sites like Twitter and reddit, where users aren’t connected in real life, but you’ll see them pop up in places like Instagram and Facebook, too.

2. Block, block, block.

Don’t hesitate to use that block button! If someone is harassing you online, there’s no reason you have to listen. Every social media site, your text messages, your emails — everything has a block button these days. Hit it! 

3. Report to the platform

If the harassment is happening on a social media site or a gaming platform, make sure to take screenshots or recordings before you block and report it directly to the site. This increases the likelihood that the person will be censored by the platform or even kicked off. Cyberbullying.org has a great resource on how to report cyberbullying to some of the most popular social media and gaming sites.

4. Report to the police

Depending on where you live and the severity of the cyberbullying, you might also want to report the incident to your local law enforcement. In the US, there’s no federal law that addresses cyberbullying, but every state has laws against bullying and all but two (Alaska and Wisconsin) specifically mention cyberbullying. So if you fear for your physical safety — or you’d like to see greater consequences for a cyberbully — you might want to consider filing a police report. 

5. Make your profiles private

It sucks to have to go private because someone is bullying you, but sometimes it’s necessary. Making your profiles private means that bullies have fewer ways to get you. And, as an added bonus, it provides an extra layer of protection against cybercriminals who can use the information you post online to create elaborate phishing schemes or steal your identity. 

We’re all digital citizens these days, spending an increasing amount of time online. And that means we all need to figure out how to coexist there, without engaging in cyberbullying or trolling behavior.

That’s not to say it’s not okay to express your opinion online. Like we said: The internet is a Place for Opinions. The online world has made it possible for more people than ever in the history of humanity to express their opinions and have them be heard, at least by a select group of others. And that’s great! But it also opens up a whole new world of bullying — and that’s just something none of us need. 

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