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

Thank you, Andrew Strauss. A cricketer and a gentleman

I dare say Andrew Strauss will never be considered a cricketing ‘great’. His stats simply don’t cut it.

He’s not a Bradman or a Sobers. He’s not a Lara, a Tendulkar or a Ponting. Neither is he a Boycott or a Botham.

He doesn’t even have the profile of Freddie Flintoff whose occasionally superhuman efforts and laddish charm won the hearts of a generation (even though, by his own admission, he should have taken more wickets and scored more runs).

No, Andrew Strauss will slip away quietly now that he has, somewhat unexpectedly, stood down as England captain and retired from the professional game.

There are all sorts of theories floating around about why he chose now to step down. A tough tour to India looms. The next Ashes is on the horizon. His form has been questionable of late (although no poorer than some other England players we could mention). And there was the ridiculous Kevin Pietersen (KP) affair which was a genuine googly for the England dressing room.

In truth I’m not bothered why Straussy chose now to make his move. I’m just saddened that I will never see this bloke open the batting for his country again.

There are many sportsmen – such as the flawed genius that is KP – who start to believe their own hype. Others act irresponsibly, act like yobs and forget they are in the public eye and that their actions bring their sport, their team and often their country into disrepute.

No-one could ever say that of Andrew Strauss.

He is a thoroughly decent, hard-working bloke who led England to back-to-back Ashes victories against the mighty Australians (once in their own back yard) and turned us into world-beaters.

Straussy is a man of no little talent with a bat, a good leader, an excellent fielder and a man with a great cricketing brain.

He also, in my opinion, possesses statesmanlike qualities which transcend the game and his previous roles.

No, he will never be considered a great. But Andrew Strauss was my favourite cricketer and I will miss him.

Thanks for the memories, skip.

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