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Truth about trolls

THERE is a tendency to heap blame on the trolls.

People are dying because of them, we are told. They are literally killing themselves. Last week, following the suicide of Australian television presenter Charlotte Dawson, a headline declared she had been "trolled to death". Friends of the star were blaming the cyber-bullies, against whom she had waged a campaign over recent years. Against this backdrop came an idiosyncratic, lone voice. Defending the rough and tumble of social media was commentator Julie Burchill, pictured, whose response to the death of Dawson was to pen a Spectator column titled "The joy of online hatred".

It is hard to imagine a more insensitive response to someone's death. Burchill's column, though partly triggered by Dawson's suicide, was really an excuse to talk about herself and to declare that she found a social-media tussle "rather bracing, like a swim in an icy pool on a sleepy morning". "Online scrapping is not for everyone," she conceded. "But for a few of us articulate, secure types, it has opened up a whole new wonderland of verbalicious viciousness."

Quickly she shifted from the death of Dawson to more general cyber-bullying and her disbelief at the fact that grown women "react with such hoop-skirted uproar when inadequates demonstrate their inferiority by calling them names and threatening them with a fate worse than death". Toughen up, she was telling us, and stop whingeing - it's fun out there.

Should we listen to her? Burchill is too rare a species to be a guide. This is the woman who, on Desert Island Discs, said: "I don't want to be one of those people who creep around trying to get people's approval. I think they're pathetic." And in her latest column, she pretty much ­reiterated that, saying: "I honestly find it hard to care what my loved ones think of me; the idea that I would care what one-handed, half-witted strangers think of me is even more of a stretch."

So, we know that Burchill thinks the desire, or need, for approval is pathetic. Well, it may be, but the truth is the majority of the population feels it.

Nevertheless, Burchill's column points to something we should pay attention to. It is the question of security: of what makes us strong enough to deal with the hate, to resist the need to constantly find validation online. It seems to me that if we focus solely on the cyber-bullies, we miss something rather important: that what happens on social media may be more of a symptom than a source of the problem.

Cyber-bullying, after all, isn't a simple phenomenon. Last week, it was revealed that many teenagers are self-trolling - sending abusive messages to their own accounts.

Research in the United States found that out of 600 students, 9% had posted toxic remarks about themselves. When, last year, Hannah Smith, 14, hanged herself after messages were posted on Ask FM telling her to "go die", "get cancer" and "drink bleach", at first cyber-bullies were blamed. But later her father revealed that detectives believed she had been sending the messages to herself.

Depression is also frequently a big element in the more tragic social-media stories. When ballet dancer Tallulah Wilson threw herself under a train, her mother blamed the "toxic digital world" of the internet. In the case of Charlotte Dawson, countless commentators have blamed the Twitter hate torrents. But both these people had been diagnosed as depressed. And depression didn't suddenly arrive in our culture as a result of social media itself. Its incidence has been climbing, slowly and steadily, over recent decades, taking its place as the malaise of our times.

I'm not saying that trolling doesn't have a role in exacerbating this, or making depression and insecurity worse. Of course, on one level we need to quieten the troll - to stop spewing out the bile about ourselves and others. We also need to learn, and teach each other, how to dismiss, ignore and reject what the troll says. We need to become more alert and sensitive to those that our vulnerable.

As ugly as trolling can be, however, what really worries most of us, from parents to social-media users, is the feeling that the cyber-world is a dark, unhappy one that breeds self-harm, isolation, self-doubt and suicidal feelings, particularly for the young. We worry that it might be a place that fosters depression - which is why, if you look online, there are countless pieces of research, as well as articles, on the links between the two, and an obsession with the news stories about social media suicides.

So are the trolls themselves actually making us more unhappy? More anxious, suicidal, insecure or depressed? I don't think so. What is actually going on is probably far more complex and difficult to dismantle. For clues, we have to look to those who have researched the rise in depression, people like happiness guru, Dr Martin Seligman, who even back in the 1990s was blaming "the ascendance of individualism and a waning of larger beliefs in religion, and in supports from the community and the extended family". Unfortunately this is big and daunting stuff. Much easier just to put a gag on those trolls.

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