Dr. Zac Turner discusses the psychology behind trolling

It’s just as much an addiction as alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Dr. Zac Turner explains how you can 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.


Hello Dr Zac,

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

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

Now I spend over six hours a day on the internet harassing people I don’t like. The feeling I get is addictive – and helps me manage my own “not-so-perfect life”.

What’s wrong with me? Am I a psychopath or do I just need a friend? I’m worried because I’ve heard the government is cracking down on trolls and could potentially send them to jail.

– Mike, Adelaide


People have turned to stranger things in these times of extreme stress, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Your acknowledgment that what you are doing is wrong and seeking help is a good start.

There are a range of factors at play here in your scenario, and I recommend discussing them with a professional, and some from a medical and psychological standpoint.

I think the feds should find internet trolls, 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 turned upside down and it could feel like you’re regaining some of the control you think you’ve lost. A lot of times you project your frustration with your situation onto the internet and onto others, which isn’t cool.

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

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

Internet trolls are typical prototypical sadists. They enjoy inflicting pain on strangers to feel better or more in control. In the case of a troll, bullying people on the internet gives them pleasure by reducing their own uncertainty.

Any mental health professional would be hesitant to diagnose you without getting the full picture in a few sessions.

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

At first glance, I can see that you have entered a very stressful life situation, in addition to the daily dealings with the pandemic. You lost your job, started accepting Centrelink payments and engaged in unhealthy practices to increase dopamine and serotonin.

I’m sure you experience some level of trolling addiction. Addiction is most likely attributed to things like gambling, drugs, or alcohol, but in fact it could be anything. It is the psychological need to do, take, or use something to the point where it is harmful to you.

By wreaking havoc on the internet, you find it funny or amusing and therefore reward yourself. Every time we reward ourselves, we begin to build pleasure pathways in our brain. Then we seek out similar rewarding stimuli to continue the flow of pleasure.

The problem is that you have to seek increasingly challenging rewards to keep the flow going – which is why trolls often get worse over time.

I recommend you drink a glass of water, take a walk outside and book yourself to see your GP or a psychologist. Focus on positive pathways of pleasure, rather than spending hours on the internet in the dark.

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

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