It turns out that "RIP Trolling" is a very real problem and I have discussed it with a number of students this week.
"Trolls" are people who post messages online in order to receive angry responses from others. They love controversy and have been around as long as I have been online. Even in the days of dial-up internet, there was always somebody on a message board or in a chat room who clearly sought negative attention through inappropriate comments.
This new group of "RIP Trolls," however, isn't just found commenting on public forums. They use news articles and social media to find pages where grieving teens gather online. Upsetting and offensive messages are posted where friends and family members of the deceased can see them. Grieving teens are likely to respond emotionally, and often aggressively. "RIP Trolls" love passionate responses and the attention of many.
Twitter has become an increasingly popular means of communication for teens. While many have established secure settings on Facebook, they choose to keep their Twitter feeds public. Unfortunately, this means that if they post an "RIP" message after somebody's death, those searching the person's name can easily find grieving teens and contact them. As well, if they tweet a message to a Twitter account belonging to the deceased, others can search for and read those messages. The generation of "digital natives" grieves publicly through social media. While this can be described as a healthy outlet for strong emotions, it also opens them up to inappropriate messages from anonymous strangers.
It is important for parents and educators to be aware of this issue, as teens are often under the impression that they are alone to fight against these anonymous bullies.
Tips for students who encounter "RIP Trolls" through social media:
1) Do not feed the trolls by responding. Trolls get a "high" from conflict and will never end a conversation. The best response is no response. Their comments are hurtful, and your frustration is legitimate, but interacting with these people will not help. Send a private message to friends who are interacting with the troll and encourage them to ignore the comments, as well.
2) Block and report the user. Facebook has some standards of its users, while Twitter seems to allow more "freedom of speech." Either way, if you block the user from contacting you, you will not have to read any more messages. If you aren't receiving messages, it's easier to ignore the person and move on.
3) Delete previous responses. The "Troll" initiated the conflict, but any responses you send to a troll can damage your reputation. The troll is using an anonymous account; you are using your "real" account. A future employer, or somebody looking to offer a scholarship, can easily see that you have sent nasty messages to another user. Regardless of what the person has said to you, or about your friends, the best response is no response. Don't tarnish your online profile because of another person's immature actions.
4) Change your privacy settings. Ensure that "only friends" can contact you on Facebook. Keep you Twitter feed "locked." Avoid using your real name on social networks. Instead, consider using your middle name or a nickname instead of your legal surname. Friends will be able to identify you, but strangers will have a more difficult time.
5) Seek support. Talk to family and friends about the situation; you are not in it alone. Even if the troll hasn't broken any laws, it is best to keep your parents and school officials in the loop about any messages you receive or view. Often, these trolls do not write anything that could constitute police action but, if threats are being made or the harassment is repeated, your parents can help to contact local law enforcement. Talk to somebody; do not deal with online harassment on your own.