London, United Kingdom, November 18, 2021 – The younger you are, the likelier you are to have participated in trolling behaviour, according to new research published today by the Avast Foundation. The study of people living across the UK and US between the ages of 16-55+, designed to understand the drivers of trolling finds:
- Almost two-thirds of British 16–24-year-olds (64%) have engaged in trolling online (defined as leaving intentionally offensive messages or insulting someone on purpose online).
- One in four (27%) acknowledge others to have been upset by their actions, and over a third (39%) believe they would be considered as confrontational online
- Politicians, people who troll themselves, celebrities and influencers are the most likely targets
- Anger is the biggest driver of trolling behaviour - cited as a motivator by nearly 1 in 3
- 16% cite standing up to people who are hateful as an excuse for trolling, rising to 25% in the 16-24 age group
With the number of social media users in the UK increasing by 2.3 million between 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 behaviour.
“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.”
The research points to a complex picture of trolling behaviour across different generations. Key findings include:
Younger People More Likely to Engage in Bad Online Behaviour
Despite the younger generation being the most impacted by trolling behaviour, the results point to a rising issue amongst UK youth:
- Almost two-thirds of British 16-24-year-olds (64%) have engaged in offensive behaviour online with over a third (38%) believing they would be considered as confrontational, and 39% admit they have upset someone
- The number of respondents admitting to saying something intentionally offensive online drops dramatically across age groups; 51% of 25–34-year-olds, 43% of 35–44-year-olds, and 30% of 45-55+ year-olds
- Friends or strangers are most likely to be targeted by trolling behaviour within the 16-24 age group. 17% of young adults admit to harassing a stranger online and 15% a friend.
- Over half (53%) of the respondents who think trolling is ‘fair game’ says groups such as politicians, celebrities, and reality TV stars ‘sign up’ to be trolled, and over 1 in 3 (37%) believe they ‘deserve it’.
Trolling Seen an Accepted Norm for Social Users
As the pandemic has changed the role social platforms play in our day to day lives, the findings suggest users feel more comfortable with improper online behaviour, and even expect it:
- 61% think people are more likely to be aggressive online than offline, yet just 19% admit to being more aggressive online than in real life, and 12% think it’s more acceptable
- Politicians and people who troll themselves are the most likely victims; 30% believe it is acceptable to leave either one of these groups an intentionally offensive message, rising to 54% amongst the 16-24 age group
- One in four (25%) respondents believe both social media users, celebrities and influencers are fair game when it comes to trolling, rising to nearly 1 in 2 (45%) of young people.
What Drives People to Troll
People are driven to engage in trolling behaviour through different motivations and emotions:
- Across all age groups, jumping on the bandwagon is seen as one of the biggest drivers of trolling. Almost a quarter of 16-24 (23%) and 25-34 (26%) years old’s share this mentality: an even bigger motivation for 35–44-year-olds (35%.)
- Standing up to people who are hateful is seen as the most acceptable excuse to troll (16%), rising to 1 in 4 (26%) among people aged 16-24
- Almost one in five people also believe their trolling behaviour wouldn’t cause any harm
- Anger is the biggest driver of trolling behaviour – nearly a third across all age groups cite this as a key motivator
The US-UK Divide
The results also highlight the differences between how UK and US citizens behave when online:
- Nearly half (44%) of American internet users admit to having engaged in intentionally offensive behaviour online; this compares to 34% of UK respondents
- Politicians are the biggest victims of trolling by Americans; one in five admit to directing their anger towards this group of people 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 behaviour. 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%)
To help it deliver on its long-term vision of digital freedom for all, the Avast Foundation also announces today a pledge to fully fund two doctoral students at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. The students will explore the drivers and behavioural characteristics of trolls. By providing further intelligence and understanding around online hate, the team will be helping the Avast Foundation continue to advocate for change.
Anna George, Social Data Science PhD at Oxford Internet Institute, comments, “The findings provide a fresh look at who is abusing others online and why these abusers are doing so. As the issue intensifies with social media users growing in number, we need to ask ourselves if users and platform owners are positioned to deal with the impact of trolling, how we can support victims, and how online abuse can be controlled.”
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 if it escalates
- Take some time off from social media
About the Avast Foundation
The Avast Foundation envisions an ethical digital world that is inclusive, transparent, and safe. We work with people and communities to remove barriers to digital freedom and to create empowered digital citizens across the globe. Learn more and follow the Avast Foundation at: foundation.avast.com
The research was conducted by Censuswide between August 23rd – August 26th, covering a national representative panel of consumers across the UK (2013 respondents) and the US (2012.) Trolling was defined as insulting someone online on purpose and leaving intentionally offensive messages on the internet. Full data tables can be found here.