U.S. millennials are most likely to engage in trolling, study finds

Erin Gallegos 30 Nov 2021

According to new research by the Avast Foundation, members of Gen Z in the U.S. don’t participate in trolling behavior as much as millennials

The Avast Foundation has conducted a study polling people across the U.S. between the ages of 16 to 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 U.S. increasing by 10 million from 2020 to 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. 

Here are some key findings from the study:

  • 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.

“Our findings show that trolling behavior 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 behaviors they see online and replicating them. Safe and secure access to the internet is a fundamental digital right in this day and age. Educating people on their responsibility as digital citizens goes hand in hand with empowering them to enjoy their digital freedom.”

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 is becoming the the accepted norm on social media

As the Covid-19 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

What’s more, 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

Finally, the results also highlight the differences between how United States and United Kingdom citizens behave 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 U.S. 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 U.S., it is most prevalent in cities such as New York and Los Angeles (53% and 56%)

What to do if you’re being trolled

Avast Foundation is working to build a Troll Free Future and is sponsoring two studentships with the Oxford Internet Institute to build rich insights into the issue, as internet safety is very important for all. To learn more and get regular updates from the Foundation, visit the website of our philanthropic arm and subscribe to the Avast Foundation newsletter.

This research was conducted by Censuswide between August 23 – August 26, 2021, covering a national representative panel of consumers across the United Kingdom (2013 respondents) and the United States (2012). Complete data tables can be found here.

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