I AM surely not alone in having been raised to believe that the
saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will
neverhurt me" contained a consoling truth
For sure, verbal abuse, then as now, was never going to be
pleasant, but wise and loving parents could persuade their
offspring that, in the rough-and-tumble of the schoolyard, it was
better than the physical alternative.
Thus inured to such unpleasantness, schoolboys and girls who
were sensitive, studious, or merely different could reason that
what mattered was not being called a swot, or a sissy, or a
teacher's pet, but not being duffed up for being one or all of
those. There was an important distinction to be made, and making it
fostered self-confidence and a degree of maturity in those
But the less palatable truth that flows from this assertion is
that it applies as much to the perpetrator as to the victim. Saying
offensive and vile things to your neighbours is not at all the same
as doing offensive and vile things to them. But these days the law
(or rather those who enthusiastically enforce it) seems
increasingly blind to the distinction. It is impossible otherwise
to explain the fact that over the past three years more than 1300
children have been fined, cautioned, or charged with a criminal
offence for having posted unpleasant com-ments on Twitter or other
The figures, obtained by Sky News after a Freedom of Information
request, are alarming in a number of ways.
First, they suggest that a generation of children is in danger
of being criminalised for being guilty in many cases of nothing
more than a heightened (albeit uglier) version of juvenile
name-calling. Second, they demonstrate an increasing readiness to
see words as the equal of action - and, in this case, to police the
inchoate thoughts of unformed young minds as if they were the deeds
of mid-life internet fraudsters.
Of course, incitement to hatred of any sort is to be taken
seriously, and punished accordingly. Of course the police must act
ifverbal onslaughts contain a genuine threat of violence. And, of
course, online bullying is a real psychological threat from which
our children may, on occasion, need legal protection.
But for the long arm of the law to be stretching routinely
across cyberspace into the bedrooms of mouthy (and, yes, highly
offensive) children - some as young as nine - sets a worrying
precedent. Left to their own devices, children have always been
capable of giving offence (and, pace Lord of the
Flies, much worse). But we should not forget that they are
still minors, and, as such, are better corrected than prosecuted.
Moreover, the real blame for online abuse may lie as much with the
technology as with those youngsters employing it. After all, having
granted unimaginable opportunities to the young and impressionable,
we should hardly be surprised that so many are tempted to use (and,
along the way, abuse) them.
The "culture" of chatrooms, forums, interactive message-boards,
and anonymous review sites positively invites unfettered
expression, and has given us allthe licence to air our half-baked
grievances and opinions as if we were Abraham Lincoln delivering
the Gettysburg Address.
If "something must be done" to curb the excesses, it is arguably
not the job of the police to do it. The technology cannot be
uninvented; so living with it responsibly is the challenge - a
challenge best met by parents and teachers.
Words, indeed, have power, but only such power as we let them
have. And, on the occasions when words do hurt, we might consider
resisting calling in the police to defend us, but rather reach for
other words to defend ourselves. Sticks and stones. . .