This summer, GAA legend Pat Spillane quit The Sunday Game after 30 years on our screens partly because of abuse he was receiving on social media. We ask the experts why society puts up with trolling and whether any of us is truly able to deal with it
If any public figure seemed unlikely to be too bothered by social-media trolling, it was surely Kerry football legend Pat Spillane. As an outspoken pundit on RTÉ GAA programme The Sunday Game for 30 years, he never seemed to think twice about sparring with fellow panellists or expressing a controversial opinion.
Yet Spillane (66) recently admitted that one of the reasons he retired from his plum TV job in July was “the volume of vitriolic abuse” he received on social media. “Frankly, in recent months, I became obsessed by these vile comments — they had started to get to me,” he wrote in a column for the Sunday World.
He said the goodwill messages, letters, postcards and mass cards he received from all over Ireland since quitting The Sunday Game restored [his] faith in humanity. He described these people as the silent majority in Ireland from whom we rarely hear and cautioned other social-media users “not to let the keyboard warriors get to you”.
Whether or not you agree with his views about Gaelic football, Spillane, with his eight All-Ireland medals, is an expert on the game. The idea that he would leave a high-profile job doing something he loved, at least partly because of being called odious names, is a sobering indictment of the insidiousness of trolling. After all, if firebrand sexagenarian stalwarts of close-knit communities aren’t a match for the trolls — if so-called ‘cute hoor’ Kerry men aren’t — then who the heck is?
Is anyone psychologically able to cope with trolling?
“That’s a really interesting question and I’d love to think yes. But I suppose the jury’s out on that simply because there are different levels of trolling, different quantities and qualities of it,” says John Francis Leader, a consulting psychologist and cognitive scientist at UCD Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab, which researches human engagement with media, including social media.
Leader says that as a species we have evolved to be reasonably good at accepting criticism, seeking support from others to moderate it and filtering out anything unhealthy. “But, obviously, the weird thing about what’s happened in the past couple of decades is the quantity and the nature of criticism is a multitude more than it was in the past.”
Instead of, perhaps, being bullied by someone in your village or town like our ancestors — “Now you’re potentially exposed to thousands of people. And it can be the case that even if the majority of those are very well intentioned, it only takes one or two or a few to be rather strong in their responses and we’re going to hear something we really don’t expect to hear.”
Trolling happens, he says, because of the ‘online disinhibition effect’. The term, coined by American psychologist John Suler, refers to how people find it much easier to hurl insults virtually than they do in real life.
“When you combine that online disinhibition effect — because you feel a bit removed from the person — and then you just play the numbers game in terms of the level of exposure that we have on social media, it’s a bit of a social experiment we have at the moment. I think everybody’s trying to figure it out to some extent.”
How do we mitigate the worst of its potential effects? Leader recommends making our social media use intentional, rather than being sucked in. He suggests limiting the size of our social groups, being mindful about opinions we share and restricting access to apps on our phones.
But what if we need to be on social media for work?
“The way I think about it is that social media is a tool and tools work for you — you don’t work for the tool,” says career coach and business mentor Ronan Kennedy.
“The second way to think about it is that it’s really important to separate the noise from the signal. In other words, separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. We all get criticised occasionally, and constructive criticism is very useful for helping us develop personally and professionally. But if criticism is just nasty or unfounded, well, that’s not much good. I’ll let my doctor criticise some of my health choices, but I won’t let anyone criticise my health choices because they’re not an expert.
“Pat Spillane, as far as I know, is an expert in his field. So I think he should be able to make his opinions and be criticised by other experts who are doing it in a constructive, thoughtful way.”
The problem is that empty vessels — and not experts — make the most social-media noise. “Trolls have realised that a good way to be heard is by destructive or nasty behaviours, because if you say something thoughtful, meaningful and nice it doesn’t get as much attention as if you say something nasty,” says Kennedy. He adds that managing your focus is key to coping with online negativity.
“Focus is a huge part of mental health. So, if you’re sitting at home reading all these negative comments on online platforms, that’s not the same as going into the real world and meeting friends and family and talking to people in your local community. The vast majority of people are going to be friendly in those instances. I’ve heard celebrities say that online it seems like everyone hates them, but then when they go out into the world, everyone loves them.
“Does Pat Spillane get the same thing in the coffee shop or the pub at the weekend as he does on social media? I don’t think he does; I think people are probably trying to buy him pints. So there seems to be a big disconnect here.”
If it can be hurtful and does not even reflect how we are truly perceived, why should we waste our time on social media?
“Well, we can use it as a tool to promote good things — like good business, good initiatives, good social causes, charities, nice work, good people. We can connect with people we don’t know and help them and let them help us. If you’re going to use it as a tool, well, you can use a hammer to build something wonderful and you can also use it to destroy. I think we should use social media as a tool for good and not let trolls take over the conversation.”
Sometimes, people don’t even need to be trolled to feel lousy after a scroll through their socials. “The other concern with social media is making comparisons,” says Kennedy. “When I talk to clients, I would say, ‘Well, look, if you’re going to compare yourself to somebody, do it properly. Compare holistically: do a comprehensive comparison. So, every minute of every day, their life circumstances, their family, background, education, friendships. Sometimes people just compare the thing that they want with the thing they don’t have.”
He quotes American author and ‘modern Stoic’ Ryan Holiday, who says: “Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more, ‘Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.’ It’s rarely the truth: ‘I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know’.”
Kennedy admits that he is so alarmed by how addictive TikTok is, he refuses to download it. Two years ago, he installed an app that blocks his use of certain social-media sites during office hours, but can still find himself tapping them unconsciously.
According to Global Web Index, the average person will spend 5.7 years on social media from the age of 16 to the average life expectancy of 70.
So many of us are so in thrall to our phones that Niamh Hannan, a chartered psychologist and coach, now delivers ‘digital detox’ workshops.
“Social media is so addictive, it’s very difficult for us to regulate ourselves in it,” she says. “Most adults will tell you that, even if they have lots of good habits and know better, they’ll get sucked into the vortex and can easily waste half an hour a time on any of the platforms. So, if we, as adults, can’t regulate ourselves, then I don’t know why we have any expectations that kids and teenagers might do it themselves. Within the workplace, people are looking at how they might create boundaries around that and look after their health because it can impact on mental health.”
It is, she says, all about how you manage your time online. She advocates for installing daily time limits on apps and having good phone etiquette — never scrolling at the kitchen table or in restaurants, putting the phone on airplane mode an hour before bed.
Hannan herself keeps only WhatsApp notifications on. “The average adult is looking at their phone about 200 times a day, so unless you turn off social-media notifications, you are going to see them when you glance at your phone.”
She does not share the opinion that Pat Spillane seems an unlikely candidate to be upset by trolls. “We can all be potentially vulnerable, regardless of the generation. I think young people are even more vulnerable, generally, than older people because [older people] have some perspective and some life experience to measure against it and can still be, as in Pat Spillane’s case, highly impacted.”
For teenagers more dependent on peer relationships, every ‘like’ counts. And it’s not just the comments, but the absence of them, that can cause consternation.
“There’s what they call a ‘seen’. If somebody that matters to them saw their post but didn’t comment, didn’t like, just passed it by — that’s even worse for them to know that the person has seen it but they haven’t reacted in any way.
“They are very vulnerable to reading stuff into that. I think the trolls and the nastiness that can emerge is really the dark side of social media, and we know there are many suicides every year by people being targeted or feeling targeted, feeling excluded and isolated and disliked in some way.”
She says the most dangerous problem is the troll’s ability to hide behind a fake or ‘sock’ account.
Even positive psychologist Dr Jolanta Burke — writer of books about happiness and lecturer in the RCSI Centre for Positive Psychology and Health — has experienced negativity online.
“After I wrote a very positive article one time, someone who doesn’t even know me wrote, ‘Oh look at this academic — a cosy job and she’s now commenting on how we should live our lives.’ It was a small incident but I was just thinking to myself, ‘Jesus, why would you be doing that?’ But then you just ignore it, you talk to your friends, you laugh it off, and move on.”
Like many others, Burke needs social media for work. “Especially for the books — if I didn’t have a presence on social media, publishers wouldn’t even talk to me.” But she reckons there is a massive negative bias against social media and that its impact on our mental health is “not as significant as the impact of what happens outside of social media in our offline lives”.
She has conducted research that suggests we are not as addicted to our smartphones as we seem to think. “When you are completely controlled by your phone, that’s when it becomes an addiction.”
Burke compares this to a time when she got to work and realised she had left her phone at home. “I experienced anxiety and felt a little bit lost and I really missed it. But, I don’t have an addiction to it because I could still just do my daily tasks.”
She says public figures “need to be careful of what they say and how they say it, so it’s not taken out of context. And all of this is about self-regulation, regulating what you’re thinking”.
Self-censorship? “Exactly. And the fact that you have to censor what you say is really difficult for many people.”
Especially, you imagine, for passionate pundits on live TV on All-Ireland final day. And if trolls are having a chilling effect on the kind of people who provide entertaining or divisive TV, sports panel shows will become deathly dull pretty fast.
“We’ve seen controversial figures in sport down the years, people like Eamon Dunphy,” says Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing.ie. “These pundits are hired because of their strong views and their expertise and you often see a balance on these panels, like good cop, bad cop.
“Pat Spillane is kind of Marmite — you either like him or you don’t — but you have to admit, if you’re fair-minded, that the man knows his stuff. He is an expert, and that’s why he was there. But he was also there because he’s a colourful character and RTÉ — or Virgin Media or Sky — are all thinking about ratings. They want ratings to be as high as possible and the ingredients to do that demand having a Pat Spillane or a Roy Keane on your panel.”
Cullen advises using our instinct and intelligence and to study very closely our potential “path” through social media. But for some people in the public eye the scrutiny takes a toll — actor Paul Mescal quit Instagram and broadcaster Ryan Tubridy quit Twitter.
“It’s not a case of being thin-skinned,” says Cullen. “We’re all human and even if you’re an extrovert and a colourful character like Pat Spillane, there might come a time where you think, there’s a line there, it’s affecting me and my family now, and it’s all too much.”