Online trolls and cyberbullies: what’s the difference?

Emily Lawrenson

Emily Lawrenson

Qustodio writer

Online trolls and cyberbullies what's the difference

Do your kids use social media? Do they talk to their friends and classmates every day online? Chances are, if you’re a parent in today’s world, the answers to these questions are – rather obviously – “Yes!” While the world of social media is helping kids to connect with their friends and foster the relationships they crave, it’s also opening children up to less positive interactions, like internet abuse, online trolls and cyberbullies. 

While both trolling and cyberbullying are forms of online conflict and abuse, they do have some subtle distinctions. To help your child navigate their online interactions, and help you educate them on their digital experiences, let’s take a closer look at the difference between cyberbullying and online trolling.

What is cyberbullying?

Sadly, bullying is nothing new, but cyberbullying, where victims are targeted through online platforms such as private messaging, social networks, and public comment sections, is a more recent phenomenon. 

Cyberbullying can include sending hurtful messages or content, posting false or mean content online about a specific person, or sharing personal information which makes the victim feel sad or embarrassed. Cyberbullying can occur anywhere online, but it’s most commonly experienced over social media and messaging apps, such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat. 

What is trolling?

When users deliberately post content or comments designed to cause a negative reaction, such as an argument, conflict, or hostility towards others, this is online trolling. Think of trolling as “fuelling the fire”. Those who engage in online trolling seek attention, but instead of through positive action, they gain it through negative behavior. They enjoy the negative reaction or suffering that this behavior triggers.

What's the difference between online trolls and cyberbullies

What’s the difference between online trolls and cyberbullies?

While these two behaviors might sound similar, the difference is largely intent. Internet trolls usually seek a reaction in general – it doesn’t matter who from, so they often don’t know their victims personally. Because online interactions often allow people to be anonymous, this means anyone can troll on the internet, with relatively little chance of consequence.

Cyberbullying, on the other hand, is usually more personal. Cyberbullies often know their victims, and the online abuse is often targeted and repeated, just like bullying in the real world. This abuse could be shared for others to see, such as through Twitter or Instagram posts, comments on shared pictures on Facebook, or even blog posts written about the victim. However, it also could be through more private channels, such as direct messaging, or email. This can make cyberbullying more difficult to detect.

How can I help my child to manage online trolling?

Being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to the internet will help your child to manage online trolls and arm them with the best tools they have available. Trolling has become a part of “normal” internet life, so it’s something they are bound to come across.

Useful tips to help your child respond to online trolling:

  • Trolls can usually be identified by the fact that they hide behind anonymity. Encourage your child to check the username and profile picture first if they are annoyed or aggravated by someone online. Random combinations of numbers and letters, or images of cartoon characters or empty avatars are often a red flag for trolls. 
  • The best response to a troll is none at all. Trolls thrive on reactions, so if your child gives them nothing to work with, the troll has already lost.
  • Block and report the troll. Reporting the troll to the website or network being used will help other users on the platform, while blocking the troll will ensure your child doesn’t have to be exposed to them any more. 
  • Encourage your child to speak to you about comments they encounter online that make them angry. Open up the conversation with them: why did the comment annoy your child? Was the comment offensive? How did it make them feel? This can help them to explore their emotions and discuss their beliefs, while giving you insight into what your child experiences online. 

If you want to limit engagement on social media to help reduce exposure time and give your child a break from online communication, using an app monitoring tool can help. Parental control tools like Qustodio allow you to block social networks entirely, or set time limits so your child can access at certain times of day. This means you are able to give your child the time on social media they enjoy while you are at home with them, where you can discuss online interactions if you sense there is a problem, or if they come to you for advice.

How to encourage your child to talk to you about cyberbullying

It can be very difficult to approach your child when it comes to talking about something that affects them – or even which affects others. As much as you might not want to accept it, your child could also be the person engaging in cyberbullying themselves. That’s why it’s always important to have an ongoing, open conversation with your child about online abuse and how to be a good digital citizen. 

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when talking to your child about cyberbullying:

1. Remind your child that they’re safe with you – family conversations are a space where they won’t feel judged. This can help them to open up and be honest. It’s important that they understand that it’s their right to be safe online, and they deserve to enjoy their social time on the internet. 

2. Share bullying experiences from when you were younger, if you had them, or relevant stories from people you know personally, to make your child feel they are not alone. This could also encourage them to relate their own experiences to you.

3. Instead of asking them to show you messages or social media profiles, ask them to show you how they use social media to interact with friends online, so you can understand the technology better. They might love to give you the teaching moment for once! 

4. Help your child to empathize, by asking emotive questions about online bullying. “How would you feel if someone were sending you nasty messages online?” “If someone was leaving mean comments on your friend’s Instagram pictures, who would you tell them to talk to?” This can help them to vocally express their emotions, while also giving them hypothetical scenarios that they could easily apply in real life. 

If you’re worried that your child is being cyberbullied, you can also make use of monitoring tools that can help to detect suspicious behaviour. With Qustodio’s calls and SMS monitoring feature, you can reduce your child’s exposure to abusive and harmful private messages, and numbers can be outright blocked so you stop the cyberbully in their tracks. While monitoring features may make your child feel like they are losing part of their privacy, you can remind them that you are looking out for their safety and explain which tools you use as a family to achieve this. 


With more children spending time online now than ever before, online abuse is on the rise – but the work you put in together as a family can set you and your child up to react and deal with cyberbullying in an open, supportive environment. The world of digital parenting is new to many of us, but by trusting your instincts and being available for your child every step of the way, you can help to make their digital experience a positive one.

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