dr. Zac Turner discusses the psychology behind trolling

It is as much an addiction as alcohol, drugs or gambling. dr. Zac Turner explains how to kick it.

Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from news.com.au. This week, Dr. Zac Turner talks about what drives internet trolls.


Hi Dr Zac,

I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m addicted to trolling people on social media. Just after the pandemic started, I lost my job and ended up at Centrelink. I found myself spending more time on the internet and ended up getting angry watching the world go crazy.

I got so frustrated with the amount of snowflakes in Australia that I started telling people exactly what I thought about them, using fake accounts.

Now I spend over six hours a day on the internet, harassing people I don’t like. The feeling it gives me is addictive – helping me cope with my own ‘not so perfect life’.

What is wrong with me? Am I a psychopath or do I just need a friend? I am concerned because I have heard that the government is curbing the trolls and possibly sending them to jail.

– Mike, Adelaide


People have turned to stranger things during these times of great stress, so don’t be too hard on yourself. The fact that you recognize that what you are doing is wrong and that you are seeking help is a good start.

There is a range of factors that come into play in your scenario here, and I recommend that you discuss many of them with a professional, and a few from a medical and psychological perspective.

I think the federal government should find trolls on the internet, but send them to therapy for free. More often than not, trolls are disenfranchised men (more often than women) rather than criminals. Your world may have been turned upside down and this can make you feel like you are taking back some of the control you think you have lost. Often you project your frustration about your situation onto the internet and onto others, which is not cool.

However, the problem with your situation is that you are currently projecting your frustration through the addictive outlet of social media and the internet. You have to think of it as how someone drinks alcohol when they are upset.

Let’s dissect the psychology of a textbook troll. Take the context out of their life situation and focus on the most important features.

Internet trolls are typical prototypical sadists. They enjoy hurting strangers to make themselves feel better or have more control. In the case of a troll, bullying people over the internet brings them pleasure by reducing their own insecurity.

Any mental health professional would be wary of diagnosing you without getting the full picture through a few sessions.

Diagnosing someone in the medical field means that that person meets a list of criteria as established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – jumping to the conclusion that you or someone you know is a psychopathic sadist without a professional is definitely not the way to go about this, so let’s break down your question further.

At first glance I can see that, in addition to dealing with the pandemic on a daily basis, you have ended up in a very stressful living situation. You’ve lost your job, started receiving Centrelink payments, and engaged in unhealthy practices to boost dopamine and serotonin.

I have no doubt that you experience some degree of addiction with trolls. Addiction is most likely attributed to things like gambling, drugs or alcohol, but in fact it can be anything. It is the psychological need to do, take or use something in such a way that it is harmful to you.

By causing chaos on the internet you find it funny or funny and thus reward yourself. Every time we reward ourselves, we start building pleasure pathways in our brains. Then we look for similar rewarding stimuli to continue the flow of pleasure.

The problem is that you have to look for more and more stimulating rewards to keep the flow going – which is why trolls often get worse as time goes on.

I recommend that you drink a glass of water, go for a walk outside and check in with your GP or psychologist. Focus on positive ways of having fun, rather than sitting on the internet for hours in the dark.

Dr Zac Turner holds a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He is both a doctor and co-owner of the Concierge Doctors telehealth service. He was a registered nurse and in addition to being a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, he is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist.

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