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Football trolling – when to give online abuse the red card

By Ann-Marie Corvin, Parent Zone senior writer


England’s defeat against Iceland in Euro 2016 has generated a torrent of criticism on social media - with most of the comments focusing on the fact that it’s our second departure from Europe within the space of a week following the European Union referendum.

But what happens when online jibes and Twitter ‘trolling’ spill into something far more threatening? And if your children stumble across disturbing and abusive comments while looking for information on their footalling heroes, how can you help them to cope?

A couple of months ago I found myself basking in Leicester City's extraordinary Premier League success and checked into striker Jamie Vardy and former player Gary Lineker’s Twitter feeds on an ever more frequent basis.

As the race to the Title progressed, what surprised me most wasn’t Lineker’s promise to present Match of the Day in his pants if Leicester won, or even Jamie Vardy’s entertaining preferences for English food ‘like Chinese or pizza’. No, it was the amount of vile abuse these men and their families received from anonymous Twitter trolls, much of it directed towards their children. As Lineker posted footage of him watching the Tottenham vs Chelsea decider with his kids, several trolls, many hiding behind false identities, posted unkind comments about his sons’ appearance.

Lineker and his family have long been a target of Twitter trolls – with many making it their life’s mission to never let the former Leicester and Barcelona striker forget the time he soiled himself during a 1990 World Cup match.

The football pundit’s eldest son George, now in his 20s, has been jibbed about everything from his famous father’s career to his own battle with leukaemia as a baby.

Having grown up in the spotlight, George seems pretty resilient and he once tweeted to reassure his dad: ‘Don't waste ur time havin' a dig at someone who it doesn't bother in the slightest, if it bothered me I'd off come off twitter a year ago #tadaaa.’

Serious abuse

While insulting players’ children is downright wrong and nasty, when threats of serious harm are levelled against players or their families, it requires police attention. This is something that – in the midst of Leicester’s euphoria  Jamie Vardy experienced when trolls posing as Manchester United fans made sexual threats against his one year-old daughter.

Vardy is a player with possibly the cleanest Twitter feed in the Premiership - for a long time he had a scene from The Lion King as his header image. But shortly before Leicester’s victory, he resorted to posting a screenshot of abuse from his partner’s Twitter feed to show his followers the sickening messages she had received about their young child.

The threats were so violent and paedophilic in nature I will not repeat them here, but reading them left me feeling digusted and dismayed that anyone could possibly have those thoughts, let alone type them out and post them online.

And if I felt like this – how would younger fans feel who may have stumbled across content like this as they checked in to see what their favourite players were up to?

While the official age for opening their own Twitter account is 13, there’s nothing to stop younger children from reading the comments about their favourite players without being logged in simply by searching their name on the site.

As a parent, you may find yourself having a conversation with an eight-year-old who has been left shocked and confused by explicit and hateful comments. 

While far from ideal, this scenario at least provides you with an opportunity to talk to your child about trolling, online abuse and cyberbullying.

It’s a chance to teach them what to do if anyone should abuse them online once they are old enough to have their own social media accounts, and to impress upon them how important it is to report serious online abuse and threats to the police

And if they are already old enough to have their own accounts and receive a cruel or malicious post, there are a number of steps they can take.

Accounts can be blocked and reported on Twitter – for more info on how click here.  

A fairly recent functionality on Twitter is that you can now share lists of your blocked tweeters with friends, allowing groups to mass-block any particularly disruptive users.

Your child may receive hurtful comments from people they know from school (or suspect that they know if they are hiding behind a false identity). Even if they are not directly threatening they may have been designed to harm their self-esteem. If such comments become upsetting and numerous then this amounts to cyberbullying and should be reported to your child’s school.

And finally, it’s worth pointing out to your child that while dealing with banter and jibes is now part and package of being a footballer, explicit threats via social media are rare. Leicestershire police are investigating the Vardy incident with the help of Premier League leaders. The trolls’ accounts have all now been shut down and reported to Twitter. 

I like to think that when players like Vardy and his family have been seriously abused online, there is more goodwill out there than bad - with thousands of fans from all sides shaming these trolls in retweets and sending out messages of support. One fan’s tweet to Vardy summed it up:  ‘Just to point out, not all Manchester United fans are like this. Im sorry if those idiots have offended you.’


Image: Nicola CC BY 2.0