When words are weapons

Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me. The childhood rhyme was one taught to us so that we wouldn’t take too literally what another kid was saying to us. And while we recited it, I think many of us can agree –

It’s a lie.

Words hurt, sometimes even more than sticks and stones ever could. While the wounds from a thrown rock will heal with time, some words penetrate so deeply they tend to leave lasting damage that has the power to strengthen that hurt over time. That is why some of us have eating disorders, why we choose the wrong partner to fall in love with, why we try to seek approval from our parents, or why we watch how we parent our own children so that we aren’t like our mothers or fathers.  Words can be weapons.

And the internet only makes this truer.

It is in this day and age when a big portion of our communication is done online. It’s convenient and instant, and it gets the word across in a much broader way than the old-fashioned method of calling people up on the phone and setting up a meeting time. It’s a great way to seek instant attention, to pretend like we have an audience hanging on our every word. And for those brief moments, there really is an audience. And that is probably what was going on in the mind of one Nevada 12 year old who created a group called “Attack a Teacher Day”, inviting more than 100 students to partake at certain time on a certain day, inspiring 5 other students to list the teachers they would like to attack with words like “die” in front of the specific teacher’s name.

Of course, it is plausible “Attack a Teacher Day” had just as much authenticity as other events that have been spread more worldwide thanks to social networking, events like “Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day” or “Talk like a Pirate Day”. Could it be that these girls created an event to pretend they would attack a teacher just for the amusement of themselves, and not to actually attack a teacher? Sure. But is it even more plausible that a group like this could incite attacks against this teacher, encouraging any student reading it to actually follow through and harm their teacher? I believe so – especially after reading this story of a third grader in Georgia who brought a knife to school, ultimately unfolding into a plot that involved several students who played roles in harming their teacher – complete with handcuffs, electric tape, a paper weight, and more.

“It seems the plan was hatched in retaliation after one of the students was scolded by the teacher for standing on a chair. Authorities were amazed at the sophistication of the plan, which included a division of roles. One of the students was to cover the windows so no one could see into the room. Another was assigned to clean up after the attack.” Saul Relative, AP

All this was done without the internet. So what of the danger in a more widespread plan of attack using the convenience of social networking and the permanency of words placed on the web?

Words have power. They have power when face to face, they have power over the phone, they have power when written in a letter, and they have power when scribed online for anyone to see. Words have the power to bring someone up, and they have power to tear someone down. They also have the power to create a mob mentality, blurring the lines between wrong and right, resulting in something like attacking – even killing – a teacher simply because they are disliked. Who knows what would have happened if authorities hadn’t stepped in….

Cyber bullying and permanent negativity on the internet does not just happen to kids across the state, or in another part of the country. It happens right here, in our own homes, on the computers of our teens. This is why I am Facebook friends with my children, why I consistently check in with them in regards to what they are doing online, and keep an eye on what they are writing. It’s not nosiness. It’s keeping them safe, and ensuring they learn how to use the internet properly. There have been times I’ve had to have conversations regarding things I’m not ok with. And the topic of how permanent words are on the internet has been a regular discussion in our household ever since either of them was allowed on the computer.

It should be a regular topic of discussion in your house too.

Words written with a negative or sarcastic tone could be read as something completely different – even dangerous. And when one writes out that they HATE someone or something, that they wish someone would DIE, or creates a group for fun that dictates harm or hate towards someone else, not only will it further that hate, it could create a potentially dangerous situation – even enticing a mob to react. And all things involved, those words can no longer be seen as harmless. When words are put together to form a HATE group stating the date and time when attacks should take place, those words are weapons.

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3 thoughts on “When words are weapons”

  1. WCM, I think you are taking the right approach here. If the parents of those children had been monitoring their internet activity, as a responsible parent should, I like to think that things may not have gotten that far. I mean, blame society, blame technology, but when it comes down to it the parents are supposed to be in charge of making sure their children don’t do this kind of thing.

  2. Very well said. This sentiment often escapes the thoughts and morals of people. It is easier to bite ones tongue while speaking compared to lashing out in type online. My inner voice is at my finger tips. I am sure that there are many people out there who think things they would never say out loud; it is easier to type things that should never be spoken.

    I agree 100% that this needs to be a conversation. When my daughter is at the age for using the internet, we will discuss this very topic. I think I may actually bring it up at a dinner party with friends this weekend.

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