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  • Writer's pictureGCI Auckland

"Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart"

Cyber-bullying has been in the news recently, and it doesn’t just affect children or teens. It seems that adults are surprisingly good at using very few words to cast slurs and fling insults online. Their targets take the comments so seriously that it affects their daily lives, and they even think of taking their own lives. The tragic death of Charlotte Dawson has prompted sympathy and renewed calls to address cyber-bullying through legal reform.

It was estimated in a recent study that every day 10,000 tweets on Twitter were racist, although of those, it was considered that 70% were not written in a hateful or prejudicial way. This was the conclusion of thinktank Demos, who conducted a study of tweets from a 9 day period from around the globe. Further, the thinktank estimated fewer than a hundred tweets were directed at individuals or had any violent intent.

But does a view of a nine day period of tweets give a true view of the problem, if there is one? What about social media like snapchat, where the messages disappear soon after they are sent? No trace remains of the message, but the damage has already been done.

Certainly, there are reports from celebrities that they are increasingly becoming targets for this kind of hate-mail. Previously postal threats and insults were able to be managed by publicists and secretaries, but these days social media frequently bypasses intermediaries. Celebrities can face short term or prolonged attacks that may be prompted by a recent appearance or comment they have made. Less known is the frequency or type of bullying that happens to average people and businesses. A 2013 Law Commission report found one in 10 New Zealanders have experienced harmful communications on the internet, while other research showed 20 per cent of secondary school students had experienced cyber bullying in some form.

Proposed laws against cyberbullying will impose penalties for those hiding behind a computer or phone if their comments amount to harassment or cause harm. Yet a law is unlikely to change the behaviour totally. Much of the abuse is anonymous and difficult to trace. Targets of bullying may not report the slurs, and may try to ignore them, but still be affected emotionally. "… what we’re recognising more and more is sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart - these things do cause real damage," said Auckland University psychologist Associate Professor Niki Harre.

How can we confront or prevent cyber-bullying, and what standards should we apply when communicating online? There are few laws and protection currently in place, and it seems up to individuals and organisations to put measures in place or to catch bullies.

Businesses, who now employ staff to manage their social media interactions, need to be aware of what their staff are saying to their customers, or to potential clients. They need to have policies on acceptable use of social media and what is not ok to put online, and how to deal with insults and attacks on their business. If they don’t, they risk endorsing bullying, damaging their reputation, or falling victim to reputational attacks.

Religious organisations are not immune from social media abuse, either. Did you know the Church of England put together 9 commandments for Christians and Church workers to consider when using social media? Based on common sense and Christian values, they set out standards of online behaviour, such as warning: 'If you wouldn’t say something in a public meeting or to someone’s face or write it in a newspaper or on headed paper – don’t say it online.'


1. Don’t rush in

2. Transient yet permanent

3. You're an ambassador

4. Don't hide

5. Blurring of public/private life boundaries

6. Safeguarding

7. Stay within the legal framework

8. Confidentiality

9. Be mindful of your own security

The Bible has many verses on the harm of words and slander, and that we should focus on speaking good things – here are a few:

Ephesians 4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Proverbs 12:18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

Psalm 19:14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Let’s be aware of the harm that words can do, be vigilant to address bullying in any form, and encourage respectful communication by our example.

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