New psychology research sheds light on why people engage in online trolling behavior, which involves purposely causing conflict and stress on the internet. The findings, published in Psychological Reports, provide evidence that trolling behavior is more common among those with low self-esteem and a high fear of missing out (FOMO).
“I’ve been researching aggressive online behavior for a few years now,” said study author Isabella L. Silva Santos, a PhD student at The Federal University of Paraíba and member of the Media Psychology Lab.
“This interest arose from two issues: our daily lives are permeated by social media, and this use continues to increase. Even so, common interpersonal rules of conduct do not seem to apply in this environment: we say and do things that we would never do in our ‘real lives,’ especially when it comes to aggression. Much of this stems from the anonymity and lack of regulation of the online environment, but is also necessary to understand the psychological and social aspects of aggressive online behavior, such as trolling.”
The researchers proposed that people with low self-esteem might troll to feel better about themselves, while those with high self-esteem might use the internet in a more positive way. FOMO (or worrying that others are having fun without them) might also play a role, as people who worry about missing out might engage in trolling to get attention and feel less left out.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers collected data from 300 social media users residing in various regions of Brazil in 2022. The participants were primarily single (50%), women (63%), and college students (18.7%), with an average age of 27.68 years. The study included four psychological assessments: the Global Assessment of Internet Trolling-Revised, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the Fear of Missing Out Scale, and the Antisocial Online Content Exposure Scale.
The study confirmed a negative relationship between self-esteem and online trolling. Individuals who disagreed with statements such as “I am able to do things as well as most other people” were more likely to engage in trolling behavior. This supports the idea that people with low self-esteem might use trolling as a way to cope with negative feelings by externalizing their aggression.
Santos said she was a bit surprised by the role of low self-esteem in trolling. “There was evidence for this hypothesis, but research on the relationship between aggression and self-esteem still has mixed results,” she explained. “However, the idea that our self-image can motivate us to attack complete strangers is an issue that deserves to be further explored by future studies.”
The researchers also found a positive relationship between FOMO and online trolling. This aligns with the notion that online aggression might help individuals with high FOMO avoid negative emotions and feelings of inferiority. The study suggested that online aggression is not just relational but can also manifest as direct behaviors like trolling.
Additionally, the researchers found that the consumption of antisocial online content mediated the impacts of both FOMO and self-esteem on trolling. This suggests that people with low self-esteem and high FOMO might engage more with aggressive content online, which in turn increases the likelihood of engaging in trolling behaviors.
Overall, the findings indicate “that online aggression has no simple explanations and is not only practiced by people at the extreme end of the antisocial spectrum,” Santos told PsyPost. “Our results demonstrate how individual aspects such as low self-esteem and FOMO (a variable associated with excessive use of social media) interact with situational variables, such as violent media, to increase aggressive behavior.”
The study provides valuable insights into the factors influencing online trolling behavior. However, the study does have some limitations. For example, it relied on correlational data, which means that causal relationships cannot be established. It’s not possible to definitively say whether low self-esteem and high FOMO directly cause online trolling or if there are other factors at play.
Santos said that future research should further examine “the role of violent media exposure as a risk factor for online aggressive behavior. This is an area that is quite explored regarding face-to-face interactions, but little addressed in the online context.”
The study, “Low Self-Esteem, High FOMO? The Other Side of the Internet Troll“, was authored by Isabella Leandra Silva Santos, Débora Cristina Nascimento Lima, Ericarla Verônica Almeida Dias, Thais Emanuele Galdino Pessoa, Tamyres Tomaz Paiva, and Carlos Eduardo Pimentel.