Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Don’t Be Gaslit by Social Media “Pranksters”

Pranks may give the perpetrator a feeling of power and control.

Key points

  • Pranks can trigger past trauma and can cause hypervigilance.
  • Pranks may be used as a way to gain power and control.
  • Pranks may be a form of psychological/emotional abuse.
  • If pranking has become a compulsion, seek the help of a mental health professional.
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
Pranks can cross the line into abuse.
Source: Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Social media has given rise to increasingly higher stakes in pranking to gain views and money. A series of “prank” videos posted on a monetized YouTube channel with 760,000 followers resulted in the channel’s creators being charged with child neglect1. The couple's children were removed from the home, and they received five years of probation.

For the purposes of this article, a prank is defined as any planned 'surprise' behavior that scares or humiliates, or otherwise causes distress to the victim.

Spouses, partners, family members, and friends have been subject to pranks that involve gruesome scenes, physical harm, and humiliation. When some victims confronted the people perpetrating the prank, their concerns were brushed off or told they needed to “lighten up.”

Sometimes, victims of pranks question whether they have the right to be upset, especially if the person perpetrating the prank doesn’t take the victim’s concerns seriously. They shouldn't. You have a right not to be pranked. You have the right to be treated with kindness and respect. You also have the right to speak out when you feel a sense of injustice or have witnessed an injustice towards another person.

When you set a boundary with this person, you may be told that you are “too sensitive,” that you “can’t take a joke,” or similar gaslighting statements. Ideally, a person would acknowledge your boundary, apologize for hurting you, and immediately cease any prank behavior. However, if a person was already willing to humiliate you, make you uncomfortable, or has already been told that the behavior is not okay with you, consider that you may never receive an apology or change in behavior.

If you have told the person that this behavior is unacceptable and they continue to prank you, or if the prank was so harmful that it caused you distress, you need to seriously think about whether it is healthy to have this person in your life. In healthy relationships, a partner doesn’t engage in behavior that knowingly hurts their partner.

Even if a person claims that they are unaware that their behavior was abusive, it is still abuse. Claiming ignorance of one’s abusive behavior is not an excuse for it.

Pranks can trigger past trauma, cause hypervigilance, or an erosion of trust in a relationship. They can also humiliate, especially when the prank footage is posted online.

Pranks may qualify as a form of emotional or psychological abuse. Pranks can be how a person attempts to gain control over their partner, family members, or friends. Pranks can invoke fear and give the perpetrator a feeling of power over others. If you are constantly feeling off-kilter, or walking on eggshells (hypervigilance) due to a prank, consider that these pranks are a form of abusive behavior. If a behavior upsets you, it’s a valid feeling.

If you are considering pulling a prank on someone, ask yourself the following questions first:

  • Has the target of this prank stated they want this behavior to stop, or have they shown distress with any pranks?
  • Is the target of the prank a vulnerable person, such as a child and or person with disabilities?
  • Does the prank involve any animals?
  • Could this prank in any way cause harm to a person, either psychologically, physically, or both?
  • Will this prank harm your relationship in any way?
  • Are your motives for the prank to cause alarm, gain attention, earn money from video views?
  • Would a reasonable person find the prank offensive, hurtful, shaming, or humiliating?
  • Are you having feelings of anger or resentment towards the target of the prank?
  • Have you been told in the past that your behavior is abusive?

Do not engage in this prank if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions. If you find that pulling pranks has become a compulsion or you feel a rush during or after the prank, seek the help of a mental health professional.

Also consider speaking with a mental health professional if you have been subjected to a prank that resulted in harm and humiliation.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Copyright 2022 Sarkis Media LLC


More from Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today