Helen Martin: Laugh off the trolls, or log off

File picture: Peter Byrne
File picture: Peter Byrne
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LONG before the internet existed, some of us were being “trolled” in the old-fashioned way, by letter or phone call, sometimes anonymously.

Before celebrities, politicians or otherwise famous people joined the line-up, most newspaper columnists were working journalists, many of whom spent the rest of their week covering news stories and writing features.

It was a privilege to have a platform on which to argue for a case you believed in or express your opinion to the world, or at least to the hundreds of thousands of people if not millions, who bought newspapers in those days. The man in the street didn’t have that opportunity. And of course, we were paid for it; it was part of the job.

It meant taking the rough with the smooth. The letters and calls expressing agreement and occasional praise, or even those taking issue or voicing criticism, submitted with full name and address attached and always ending “yours sincerely”, were the good bits. The threats to us or our families, personally hurtful comments and abuse that came in, usually anonymously, were not so nice. And while rare serious threats were reported to the police, most we just took on the chin because that too was part of the job.

It was accepted that to write a professional column often meant choosing controversial subjects and that sticking your neck out meant some flak was bound to come back at you. Even non-controversial comment could attract vitriolic responses if it rubbed someone up the wrong way. It was then, as it is now, the way of the world.

So contrary to popular belief, “trolling” is not a new thing. When social media was invented and millions took to Twitter and Facebook among other platforms, only an idiot would have assumed that everyone would be nice to each other.

Publicly expressing a point of view, posting something you are proud of and generally putting yourself out there, carries a risk. It always has.

So it’s no surprise that a quarter of 13-year-old girls in Scotland have been sent abusive messages online, or that most of those are being “got at” because they shared a “selfie”. What did we expect?

The difference with social media is that the responses, like the original post, don’t come by private letter but are public, meaning they are shaming, embarrassing, humiliating and mocking, for all the world to see, hence the World Health Organisation has now branded cyber-bullying as a public health problem affecting the social and emotional development of young people, let alone that some young teenagers have been driven to suicide.

Having had my share of all that as a working adult over the last three decades of column-writing, I neither Tweet nor Facebook. We can’t turn back the tide or change human nature. But we must impose and enforce age limits and explain to children from a very young age, that before they take to social media they have to be prepared for the consequences.

When they are big enough and old enough to treat unsavoury, threatening and cruel responses as water off a duck’s back, they are mature enough to enter the fray. Otherwise, stay out of it.

Snap happy at last thanks to DIY photo booth

THERE’S one “selfie” I am delighted with. No-one likes their non-smiling, convict-like passport photo but the one I had taken in an “everything” shop the other day surpassed my worst fears.

The photographer was about a foot shorter than me, the stool was set high and the result was a shot looking up my nostrils, lips twisted down as if I’d just had a stroke as I endeavoured to look in the lens. Himself joked about it for days.

The Post Office DIY booth by comparison was £2 cheaper, allowed me to position myself and see the reflection, and even the option of another go if I didn’t like it. “Like it” might be too strong, but it was a vast improvement. If you want a job done well . . .

Low wages are self-defeating

THAT big national and multi-national firms are cutting jobs to pay for the living wage is hardly surprising, but it’s self-defeating.

Low wages are damaging the economy. If people don’t earn enough they can’t spend money on products and services. At the same time we have a yawning wealth gap and cutting jobs only makes that worse.

Pay the living wage, and find the money by cutting the salaries of overpaid CEOs and executives, reducing shareholders’ dividends, and temporarily expecting lower profits or even higher shortfalls.

Restore some kind of balance and big business will benefit in the long run towards a sustainable future rather than cutting its own throat by destroying the UK customer base.

University students must make the grade

I’M all for poorer youngsters having access to uni. Wasn’t that the point of abolishing tuition fees? But not at the expense of those with better grades as advised by the Commission on Widening Access. Who wants a doctor, dentist, teacher or lawyer who didn’t really make the grade? And we already have too many graduates unemployed or on lower paid jobs than ever. Uni’s not the answer.

More apprenticeships, more on-the-job training, more rather than fewer college places, better vocational guidance and support and something to prevent employers demanding a degree for a job that patently doesn’t need it, would be cheaper and more constructive.