Internet trolls and the school playground

As a child, if ever I came home from school complaining of people calling me names, my mother would say: “Ignore them. Otherwise they’ll do it even more. Don’t play with people who call you names.

If I ever protested, she would get visibly irritated: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  Say that and walk away.”

Sometimes I found her advice very difficult to take. It always seemed inadequate and it never satisfied my inflamed need for retribution against the perpetrators or more perversely, for my desire for their acceptance and inclusion of me in their group.

Sometimes if I could not resist the temptation to retaliate, my mother would say: “If – and when – you come off worse… don’t come crying to me!”

By the time I became a teacher, I had graduated to dishing out the same advice.

In the jungle that is the school playground, children have to find a way to cope and protect themselves against name-calling – simply because most of it will go un-witnessed. It’s usually one person’s word against another. Even when it is reported, perpetrators usually deny it, or say: “I was only joking Sir… I didn’t mean anything bad!”

By name-calling, I’m not talking about racist, sexist or homophobic abuse – that is something we should not tolerate. I’m not condoning name-calling, but if we take all kinds as seriously as that, the effect is not to take any abusive language seriously at all. As teachers, we have to make an assessment of seriousness and credibility.

Any teacher who has done their share of playground duties over the years will know the scene: children who cannot seem to protect themselves from name-callers come regularly complaining or seeking protection. In serious cases the only remedy that teachers can provide is temporary – which might involve allowing victims to stay out of the playground for a day or two or have them walk around the playground holding on to your hand or invite sets of parents in to discuss issues etc etc etc – all enough reason for name-callers to want to wind-up their victims even more.

Aggravated name-calling is a sign of psychological and emotional flaws and teachers can only do so much to prevent and protect. The roots of it lie deeper than we as teachers can normally get to.

Name-callers are after all people who know how to get a reaction. They are skilled in learning which buttons to press and when. They are expert ‘wind-up merchants’. For many of them, a future writing the headlines at the Daily Mail will be a natural career choice.

Anyone who writes a blog, has an open Twitter feed, Facebook group or manages an online community knows the online world is full of wind-up merchants like this. They are called trolls.

Social media managers – or indeed anyone who engages in social networking – knows that the first rule of social media engagement is:

Don’t feed the trolls!”

It’s the 21st century equivalent of my mother’s advice of “Ignore them. Otherwise they’ll do it even more.

The recent tragic suicides of teenage girls in the UK, Ireland and the US who have felt overwhelmed by obscene and abusive trolling testifies to the perceived power of social networking on the internet. Similarly, the trolling of feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Guardian writer Hadley Freeman have been disgusting and disgraceful and must have felt extremely intimidating and threatening.

I accept completely that these women are not provoking the trolling. I also accept that they should not have to temper their views just because anonymous misogynists are trying to intimidate them. I again accept that making physical threats is illegal. Indeed, the defiance of these women has my unbounded admiration.

But in my view, the only way to deal with trolls is to take my mother’s advice – as difficult as that may be.

Threats to rape and bomb feminist campaigners – as disgusting as those threats are – are simply not credible as serious threats. Being on the receiving end of such stuff – though extremely unpleasant – can be dealt with only by adopting my mother’s maxim.

Speech, however offensive, is not an act of violence. Threats, however intimidating, have to be assessed by their credibility.

As a teacher – even in a primary school – I was aware that there were kids in the playground who were genuinely vulnerable to physical intimidation and violence.  I have to distinguish between threats that – in my assessment on the spot, day in and day out – are real and those that are a ‘wind-up’. My focus has to be on protecting children from what I assess are credible and serious threats of physical intimidation and violence. Name-calling – however unpleasant – is mostly a ‘wind-up’.

But as in the case of the teenage girls, the ‘wind-up’ can become a feeding frenzy that can feel overwhelming. But it could have been neutralized immediately – if those girls had stopped using social media, even for a short time.

As teachers, we must assess everyday the so-called threats coming from kids using foul-mouthed misogynistic language, including rap lyrics. Does mouthing these mean they have become misogynists and are about to commit acts of sexual violence and rape?  As unpleasant as rap lyrics are, I think not.

Should we take any more seriously an idiot with a foul mouth, a filthy mind and a Twitter account?

Police time would be much better spent protecting girls and women from real threats – and real acts of grooming, violence and intimidation and teachers must do like-wise with vulnerable children in the classroom and the playground.

The blogosphere is a very big playground. Most people in the playground know how to play nicely. But in every playground, there are highly-skilled, expert name-calling wind-up merchants. Their influence relies on people taking notice of them.

If we don’t feed them, they starve.  Either that or we have to choose to stay out of the playground.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then over a decade for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk or book him for a talk. 

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

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