Whenever someone talks about the abuse they are dealing with online, inevitably there are people who tell them to grow a thick skin and/or ignore the trolls. I don’t doubt that most of these people have good intentions at heart, but this advice just isn’t useful.

It’s not useful because we already know it. Chances are, when you say this to someone, they have heard it before. Thanks to the internet, I believe that we have thicker skins than ever before. If you know someone who is opening up about the sort of abuse they receive, chances are they already have a thicker skin than you do. You are just hearing about what they are choosing to share with you, not the entirety of what they have received. They don’t need to hear “grow a thick skin.” They already have one.

Similarly, just because someone is talking about the abuse they deal with, that doesn’t mean they are engaging with the “trolls.” But to ignore something particular – rather than just every single message you receive – you usually have to read those messages. If you allow comments and you want to engage with people who have questions, you also have to read the comments posted by people who want to harm you. So even if you ignore them, they can still impact you. To truly ignore the trolls, you must ignore all.

It’s Easy

I really think it’s time for people to put these phrases to rest. I’m not saying that there is never a case where they are useful, but at this stage, it’s basically a  “you were born yesterday” type of thing. Unless they are brand new to the internet, it’s generally not useful.

Plus, most of the time when I see someone say this, I think it’s pretty easy for them to say it, since it’s not them. It’s very easy to say to grow a thick skin, when it’s not you. It’s easy to say to ignore the trolls, when it’s not you. It’s easy to place the burden on the person who has to read these comments. Some might read this post and think, “well, I actually do it. I get nasty comments and I ignore them.” Great. So do I.

But a lot of us are lying to ourselves when we say that it never bothers us. It might not bother us right now, but if you subject yourself to it enough, it will. If they push the right buttons, it will make you feel a certain way. It’s all about what they say and how much they say it. If you can’t be affected, you aren’t human. It doesn’t matter who you are – celebrity, YouTube host, comment moderator, whatever – you are human and, eventually, it’ll hit you. And yet, we all have a thick skin and we pretty much always ignore the trolls.

What You Are Saying

When someone shares the abuse they are dealing with, they are generally doing so as an outlet. They find it funny, they believe there is good in sharing it or maybe they are just looking for support. When you respond by telling them to grow thick skin and ignore the trolls, here’s what you are saying: “shut up, don’t talk about it, accept it and don’t be human.”

Instead of offering this type of advice, if you do like this person, I’d encourage you to do one of the following:

  • Empathize with them. Don’t tell them what to do, just agree that the comments they get are ridiculous/hilarious/offensive.
  • Leave supportive comments on their work.
  • Listen and try to be the change you want to see in the world.
  • Nothing.

Once in a while, I’ll share some nasty comment I received on one of the platforms I engage in. I’ve been managing online communities for 14 years, have moderated comments where more than 5 million contributions were made, built a YouTube show that has over 3,000 subscribers, have written books read by tens of thousands and have have given around 40 talks as a public speaker. It goes without saying: I have a thick skin, I understand how people engage online and know not to spend time on “trolls.” Due to that, I’d rather hear nothing than hear “grow a thick skin” or “ignore the trolls.”

I am not saying that you shouldn’t ignore the trolls. I am not saying that you don’t need thick skin to subject yourself to the world’s criticism. If I run into anyone who is both asking for advice and might need that advice (again, falling into that very, very inexperienced category), I’ll offer it. There are trolls, mean people and truly dangerous people out there and you have to limit how they impact you. Over the years, I’ve certainly told others to ignore those people. But I stopped when that advise ceased to be helpful.