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Hurtful words

11 July 2014

We don't need the law to intervene in online name-calling, declares Trevor Barnes

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 abused.

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 social networks.

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. . .

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