It’s time we made ‘trolling’ socially unacceptable

Internet abuse is rife.

Internet abuse is rife.

I suspect like me, many people love and loathe the internet in equal measure.

Perhaps it’s an over-simplification but I would suggest that if you went to school in the days before the worldwide web then you realise that a) books (real ones, with paper) are good and b) there really is more to life than having a mobile phone surgically attached to your hand.

Don’t get me wrong: The internet has its uses. It’s a wonderful tool for learning (so long as you’re savvy enough to wade through the dross for reliable sources). It’s also great for shopping.

But, of course, the best thing about the web is that it brings people together. It instantly connects us with friends and loved ones around the country and all over the world.

For example, yours truly can chat online, face-to-face with my gamer friends in the States or via social media with my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

I’ll be sitting at work here in Hanley early in the morning and suddenly a message will pop up on Facebook from a little town called Feilding in the Manawatu region of the North Island where Steve is just about to hit the hay. This will never cease to amaze me. Bear in mind I’m still in awe of touch-screen technology.

But for all the advantages of the internet, there are many down-sides – not least the way in which it, and social media in particular, perpetuate bullying and abuse.

I was heartened to hear this week that people who abuse their victims on social media face prosecution for the first time in a shake-up of domestic violence rules.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders announced that criminal prosecutors have been given new guidance to modernise the way they investigate abuse.

She said some teenagers may not consider themselves victims if they are being targeted on sites such as Facebook and Twitter – as opposed to being physically abused.

This new guidance means online abuse will now be taken into account in domestic violence cases.

The problem is that these kinds of incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been numerous documented cases of teenagers committing suicide after being bullied online; Of celebrities and high-profile individuals being stalked or harassed; Of organisations being unfairly targeted by individuals with an axe to grind.

It’s just so easy, isn’t it? This technological marvel which is seen as a vital lifeline in countries where people live in fear of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword.

Anyone, anywhere can log on to the internet and create a platform to spout their (very often not so nice) views about other people.

Anyone with a social media account will see this abuse daily. Anyone who logs on to forums – such as the hugely popular football club fan sites – is exposed to it. Anyone who reads The Sentinel online and looks at some of the comments posted beneath stories will know what I’m talking about.

Many of the worst offenders hide behind pseudonyms and often have several of them. They like having the last word – believing this means they have somehow made their point or won the argument.

Ironically, I suspect very few of the abusers – because that’s what they are – would have the courage to say such things to the faces of their victims. Otherwise presumably they wouldn’t hide their identities.

The internet tends to embolden morons and give such people an over-inflated sense of their own importance.

I thought I had left the playground bullies behind when I finished school 26 years ago but it seems many of them have re-emerged via keyboards.

Forgive me if I sound like a representative of the Thought Police but it is hugely worrying to me that this sort of abuse is commonplace.

There’s a world of difference in my mind to free speech enabling robust, healthy debate and the insidious persecution of individuals because someone has an axe to grind with them or just because they can.

To my mind, swearing at someone on the internet or calling them ‘scum’ or a ‘liar’ or worse should be as socially-unacceptable as drink-driving.

I’ve blocked about 80 people from my Twitter feed in the last five years – the vast majority of whom claimed to be Port Vale supporters. Most of them began abusing me when the club’s chairman fell out with The Sentinel last November (ignoring the fact that this newspaper and yours truly did a bit to help the Vale in recent years).

Such abuse is water off a duck’s back to me these days but not everyone can shrug it off. We should remember that sticks and stones may break bones but words can also hurt people.

Sure, you can ‘block’ someone from your Twitter account or ‘unfriend’ them on Facebook. You can avoid forums or report abuse. But why should you have to?

Internet forums and social media are the verbal equivalent of the Wild West.

Given that children now have access to tablets and mobile telephones from a very early age, I think it’s vital that parents and teachers advise them how to behave online.

It’s one thing to install restrictions on devices to block certain websites or to protect your child from predators through education, but I think it is equally important to equip youngsters to deal with online abuse which can’t be filtered out – and to ensure they don’t actually dish it out themselves.

My view is: If you can’t say something politely then don’t say anything.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Just time for one last tour then school’s out… forever

The old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

The old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

There is a framed picture in head teacher John Patino’s office. It is an aerial photograph which I’m guessing, from the look of the vehicles, was taken around 1983 when yours truly started at Holden Lane High School.

It shows the mobile classrooms which had been built on an area previously home to cricket nets to accommodate for the double-intake that year.

This included 11-year-old, destined-to-be GCSE guinea-pigs.

My lot.

One of those mobiles, top right, became my ‘home’, or form room, for five years.

If you look closely you can just make out the speck of a lad on a bicycle – presumably riding home.

I wondered briefly if I knew him. Maybe he was in my year. Perhaps we’re still in touch on Facebook.

Schools are special places, you see. You spend so long there and your actions are so routine that they become ingrained in your memory.

As I sat there listening to John’s vision of the future for my old school I couldn’t help but reminisce.

I couldn’t help but think about teachers whose big personalities or quirky traits left such an impression on young me.

Even now, 25 years after leaving, I can still hear Mr Ball barking orders down the corridors and giving out lines and detention to ne’er do wells.

I can still hear my form tutor Mr Jones enforcing discipline with a sergeant major’s humour and the threat of the ruler and the cane.

I can still recall the dread of P.E. That feeling in the pit of my stomach from knowing that fat, asthmatic yours truly couldn’t run about without getting out of breath.

Rubbish at football. Always last at cross-country.

That’s just the way it was.

I can still remember music teacher Mr Baddeley rolling his eyes at me as I failed the recorder test.

I can still recall being smitten from day one when I first spotted a girl in the top class.

John bought me back to down to earth with a bump: From September, he explained, Holden Lane High in Sneyd Green will cease to exist.

It will be replaced by the brand new £11 million Excel Academy which is currently under construction.

In January the buildings of my old school will no longer be used and then the bulldozers will move in.

Much as it tugs at my heart strings, there are sound reasons for this.

A couple of years ago Holden Lane went in to special measures after a damning Ofsted inspection.

The number of pupils has fallen from 1,300 or so in its hey-day to just 800 or so. This desperately needs to change.

The buildings I refer to with such fondness are, to put it mildly, well past their best. This isn’t something a lick of paint or a refurbishment can mask because five decades and literally tens of thousands of pupils have taken their toll on the old girl.

Yes, what I didn’t realise was that Holden Lane High this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and will just about reach that milestone before it’s demolition time.

In order to reverse falling pupil numbers and exorcise the ghost of that Ofsted report a new academy will rise from the ashes – funded by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

It will be an academy the pupils deserve with state-of-the-art facilities and one which, John and the governors hope, will tempt families to again look favourably on a school that has fallen from grace in recent years.

There will be a new uniform with a red rather than a blue tie. Yes, it’s all-change at Holden Lane – sorry, the Excel Academy – and it’s nothing more than present and future generations deserve.

John took me on a tour of the old building and I made him laugh by remembering where all my fifth year classrooms were across three floors.

The corridors that once were so daunting seemed woefully small, the stairwells antiquated and the windows, well, rather draughty.

Happily, however, not much had changed in a quarter of a century since 16-year-old me left to do his A-levels at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

There’ll be one hell of a reunion before they knock the place down, I’ll make sure of that.

I may even take a brick as a keepsake.

I’ll certainly want to take one final tour round the school before that happens – perhaps accompanied this time by some old friends from class 5/1. You know who you are.

It’ll be mint. Ace. Be there or be square.

Inside the old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

Inside the old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

It’s not the snow that’s the problem, it’s how we behave

A snow scene in Burslem.

A snow scene in Burslem.

They were selling snow shovels in Asda: ‘The shovels and sledges are selling fast so you’ll have to be quick’, warned the nice announcer lady over the PA system.
It seemed to me everyone in the store had been gripped by some sort of collective hysteria over the first proper snowfall of the winter.
Bear in mind I was in there under duress doing the weekly shop for our family of four plus a dog.
In stark contrast everyone else seemed to be a walking case study for Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.
A mere dusting of the white stuff had been enough to create panic-buying on a scale not seen since December 23 – with queues of miserable-looking shoppers snaking down the aisles from the check-outs.
Other supermarkets are, of course, available and a colleague of mine Tweeted a picture taken at a local Tesco where every loaf of bread and every bap and bun had vanished from the shelves.
This kind of behaviour is simply unfathomable to me and it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.
I would guess the average house in North Staffordshire has enough food to see its occupants through any cold spell and yet, for some reason, a few snowflakes and madness sets in.
I mean, heaven forbid we have to make do with what’s in the cupboards and the fridge.
Granted, the media has to take some responsibility for the universal weirdness.
‘Arctic blast’ type headlines dominate newspaper front pages while the TV news shows re-run after re-run of planes being cancelled at Heathrow Airport and some fella’s car stuck in a ditch in Durham.
‘Why are we so bad at coping with the cold weather?’ a number of Sentinel letter writers have asked before blaming the council/Government or Met Office.
The answer is multi-faceted but must have something to do with the fact that we rarely have really bad weather in this country.
When I say ‘bad’ I mean lots of snow or prolonged periods when the temperature drops to minus something-or-other.
When this does happen it seems to catch an awful lot of people by surprise.
Presumably they either haven’t seen a weather forecast for several days or they don’t have a window.
It wouldn’t enter their heads to enjoy the picture postcard scene and make the best of it – not when there’s a chance to moan and forget that they too were young once and that not everyone’s as miserable and curmudgeonly as they are.
I reckon our inability to cope with frost, snow and ice also has a lot to do with the fact that many people are lazy, inconsiderate or downright stupid.
Occasionally all three.
On the internet our obsession with the weather plummeted to new depths locally as council gritting teams came in for a pasting on social media yet again.
There was outrage that a certain street in Meir hadn’t been gritted.
One poster disputed the city council’s assertion that its gritters were even out on the streets.
She commented: “Well all I av seen is cars sliding around and ppl gettin stuck this city is a joke I avnt seen any gritters and I walked to work, waste of space as usual, think the gritters and the grit must all av harry potter invisibility cloaks.”
(In English this means the lady in question didn’t spot any gritters during her extensive survey of her walk-to-work route).
Another poster, a mum-of-three, couldn’t understand why the pavements weren’t gritted too because of the risk the snow posed to her and her sprogs.
I kid you not.
This, of course, all boils down to a ‘woe-is-me’, can’t do anything for ourselves attitude which I find flabbergasting.
I refuse to believe people were so mollycoddled and useless 30 or 40 years ago when I was growing up.
Nowadays it seems some people aren’t happy unless every inch of the route between their front door and their local shop/pub/school/place of work (insert as appropriate) has been treated with rock salt and personally tested by their ward councillor (whom seven out of 10 couldn’t be bothered to vote for).
To be honest, if the main roads are kept clear (and they usually are) then I’m happy.
Having to take my time as I drive or walk along the side streets is no great inconvenience and using those little yellow bins to sprinkle a bit of grit on my drive and that of my elderly neighbour is no real hardship to me.
Yes, we’ve definitely gone soft in recent years: Take schools, for example.
Holden Lane High School only closed once in the winter during my five years there between 1983 and 1988 and that was because of a problem with the boiler.
Nowadays some schools close when there’s even a threat of ‘bad’ weather or text working parents at lunchtime to tell them to come and collect their children as soon as possible because there’s four centimetres of snow on the playground.
Why? The pupils are already in the school so what does it matter what time they leave?
‘Health and safety’ posted a teacher friend of mine on Facebook before adding a smiley face with a wink and presumably heading off to the shed to dig out his sledge.
Nice work if you can get it.
I love winter: A sharp frost in the morning and a fresh blanket of snow is a beautiful sight to behold.
What’s more, I promise to love it even when I’m old and grey and all I can do is stare out at the children making snowmen and throwing snow balls. In fact, I’ll be envious.
You see, it’s not the cold weather that’s unbearable – it’s the way most of us react when we get some.

Once you create a social media account, you’re on your own…

I can fully understand Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s rationale behind issuing its members with a social media rulebook to help them mind their Ps and Qs.

The powers-that-be want to ensure that the authority’s good name isn’t besmirched by some clever dick with a lap top.

The only mystery is why it took the council’s internet police so long to issue a rule book.

Any politician (or journalist, for that matter) brave enough to use social media learns pretty sharpish that it’s a double-edged sword.

Twitter, Facebook and the like can be wonderful tools for promoting whatever you want to promote.

Of course, the problem arises when not everyone likes your agenda.

You see, we’re not all Stephen Fry. There’s a good reason why a national treasure like the man who gave us Blackadder’s Melchett, among other unforgettable characters, has the best part of five million followers on Twitter.

A comedy genius, Fry oozes wit and wisdom in equal measure and the 147 character limit for Tweets seems perfect for him.

That’s why I don’t mind occasionally reading about the minutiae of his life or his streams of consciousness – especially as, like me, he’s a cricket-lover.

Unfortunately, most mortals simply aren’t as engaging and, crucially, cannot draw upon the huge reservoir of goodwill and respect that Stephen Fry enjoys.

This is why many people get sucked into unseemly and unedifying slanging matches which everyone (well, anyone who follows them or is their ‘friend’) can see.

An ill-advised post, written in the heat of the moment, can have catastrophic consequences for a person’s life, career or popularity.

It may take less then a minute to vent your spleen on such very public forums but, once you have, there’s a chance the world and his dog will have seen your missive and drawn instant conclusions about your worth as a human being.

If the pen is mightier than the sword then I would suggest the keyboard is infinitely more powerful than both.

The harsh reality is that some people simply shouldn’t be allowed access to a toaster – let alone the internet.

These are the kind of people who could start an argument in an empty room.

They are simply not good with, well… words – their common sense deficiency and GCSE grade G in English regularly exposed in the cold expanse of cyberspace.

Worse still are those who actually revel in being provocative and argumentative or making every other word an expletive – believing themselves to be somehow edgy and cool.

These keyboard warriors are legends in their own computer rooms and are to be avoided, blocked and ostracised because, as I’ve learned from bitter experience, there’s simply no point debating with an idiot.

Which brings me neatly on to the use of social media by politicians.

I should say first that I’m all for anything which helps MPs and councillors better engage with an electorate which is, generally speaking, apathetic about politics – particularly at a local level.

Social media gives councillors a measure of freedom and a voice beyond the confines of the council chamber or their own party.

While I understand the local authority’s desire to police the use of the likes of Facebook and Twitter by councillors, I think some of the advice reads rather like excerpts from a rule book for stating the bleedin’ obvious.

The city council’s words of wisdom include: “Treat others with respect; avoid personal attacks and disrespectful, rude or offensive comments; do not publish anything that might be considered sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or anti-faith.”

To me, the very fact that PR officers feel the need to remind elected members to be respectful to other people seems absurd.

Other guidance such as telling councillors to avoid discussing ‘controversial topics’ such as politics or religion is patently nonsense.

After all, what’s the point of members having a social media profile if they’re banned from talking about politics?

Ultimately, the internet is a vast, ever-changing and unpredictable environment into which politicians – and everyone else for that matter – venture at their own risk.

Irrespective of what advice is issued, once someone creates an account they’re on their own.

At some point someone viewing their profile will undoubtedly take exception to something they’ve written.

When this happens, as it inevitably will, the trick is not to be intimidated or cowed and to remember that, whoever you are arguing with, is not a Bond villain.

More likely, it’s a bloke sitting in his box room, wearing slippers and supping a mug of Ovaltine as he sets the world to rights.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

We’ve all this technology so why does it feel like we’re going backwards?

The little ‘chat’ screen on the bottom right hand corner of my Facebook page popped up. It was my cousin Steven in New Zealand.

“Great win for Vale,” he wrote, before informing me that he’s been flat-hunting in Wellington for his daughter who is about to take up a job as an air hostess.

A quick exchange of messages and he was off to bed, leaving yours truly, who is stuck in the office, to marvel at the wonders of modern technology which allow me to hook up regularly with a bloke who is 11,500 miles away.

This same technology has allowed me to plan my first trip to the States later this year – with the help of an American friend on the same social networking site who is going halves with me on hotel costs. Result.

Chez Tideswell now has a brilliant, super-fast computer in the living room which all of us (including my five and seven-year-olds) use for both work and play.

The little ’uns are on there most days playing superhero games or navigating their school’s ‘virtual learning environment’ – their mastery of the mouse never ceasing to amaze me.

Meanwhile, we grown-ups log in to do a bit of work from home or use the computer to pay for shopping with plastic, check cinema times or just look stuff up.

At the same time our mobile telephones are never far away – beeping, buzzing or flashing to tell us we’ve had a text message or email.

It’s all about that instant connection, the must-have applications and essential convenience for our ‘busier-than-ever’ lives.

The strange thing is that for all the advancements and the benefits, for all that the world has never been a smaller place, I dare say many of us have never felt more alone.

Notorious Eighties throwback I may be, but I can’t help but feel that because of all this technology we’ve actually lost something very precious.

Take social networking, for example: It’s brilliant for keeping in touch with people you don’t see very often or who live overseas and it’s a wonderful tool for organising reunions, charity dos and the like.

It can also be a great force for good, for bringing together like-minded people and, as I discovered recently, for finding lost pets.

More to the point, however, it’s a whingers’ paradise filled with the minutiae of people’s lives that even they can’t possibly find interesting.

Whereas a few years ago every street had the nosey-neighbour curtain-twitchers who knew everything, these days it’s far easier for anyone with a PC.

Just log on to Facebook for streams of: ‘I can’t believe it’s Monday. Can’t be bothered with work’; ‘I’m sooooooo fed up :-(’; ‘I am so lucky to have such-and-such in my life’; or ‘After all I’ve done for you and you treat me like this’ type nonsense.

Worse still is the: ‘Joanne Bloggs is 18 weeks pregnant today which means her baby is the size of a satsuma’ type updates. I kid you not.

This is all done for attention, of course, with people failing to realise there’s a fine line between sharing something funny or unusual with a virtual community and filling up other people’s ‘news feeds’ with pointless drivel.

Like an addiction, social networking cons many users into thinking that they must post daily – or even every couple of hours – despite the fact they have nothing of any consequence to say.

Rather than getting out meeting real people or having friends and relatives visit them, it seems many social networkers would rather sit at their computers having virtual relationships where caring involves simply clicking the ‘like’ button. Surely that can’t be healthy.

There are at least a couple of generations now who have grown up with this technology and, because of it, many of them are seriously socially-challenged.

Teenagers have always been renowned for being know-it-all ignoramuses but mobile telephones have taken this to a whole new level.

In my youth Walkmans were seen as the big evil because they produced zombies who were unable to acknowledge the existence of others. Nowadays it’s worse because you have children who are either texting, tweeting or updating their Facebook statuses while listening to music and ignoring you at the same time.

If I’m coming across as an old fart then I make no apologies because I don’t think I’m alone in despairing at the way in which technology actually diminishes our lives as much as it enhances them.

I was talking to a teacher the other night. For the record, she’s younger than me and she was bemoaning the fact that her boss hadn’t banned mobile telephones in the secondary school where she works.

Her view was that they make it very hard to enforce discipline or hold the attention of pupils who come up with all manner of excuses as to why they need to be checking them every five minutes (usually something to do with a sick relative, apparently).

As for ‘cyber-bullying’, let’s just say she hadn’t a clue how society should tackle something she reckoned was rife.

Interestingly, my teacher friend also despairs at the way in which the internet is producing students who are unable to think for themselves and for whom the answer to everything is ‘Google’.

She said: “I say to them that the very least they should do when they copy and paste stuff from the internet is to change a few words around”.

In contrast, I remember bus trips up to the reference library at Hanley on a Saturday morning when I was 15 to research my history homework. To this day I still love libraries.

Call me old fashioned, but I still read books each night before bed. Currently I’m on The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Give it a try. It’s great.

However, sadly, there are millions for whom picking up a physical book – with a cover and pages – is an alien concept these days.

There are even more who will never know the simple pleasure of making an arrangement to meet their mates on a Friday night and then not speaking to them for a week – which means you can catch up and actually have something to say.

It was author Aldous Huxley who wrote: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.”

With a high street on its knees – thanks in no small part to the internet – with text speak replacing the English language for many, and social networking replacing real relationships, it is hard to argue with his logic.

Anyway, must dash. Have to update my Facebook status with a moan about me working too hard. Lol.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday