Yes, words do matter

Emotional pain is just as real as physical pain. Emotional/ verbal/ cyber abuse is just as devastating as physical abuse

Content warning: bullying, mentions Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”.

Hands up anyone who has heard that. I’m sure we all have, both as children and adults. Words are often described as “just words”. Nothing. Just water off a duck’s back.

But words do matter (I’ll get to an actual scientific explanation in a second). Victims of emotional abuse, either by peers, by a partner or family member knows this all too well. You feel vulnerable. The more it goes on, the more your self – esteem gets eroded. In the end, you end up believing the lies.

An area that people are starting to grapple with is online abuse, particularly on social media.While there are a number of laws in Australia that make things like stalking, harassment and defamation online an offence, in 2014, anti – bullying campaigners said that police were not trained enough to deal with these cases. Too many complaints were being dismissed.

According to Daily Mail Australia, Adelaide woman, Maxine Pratt, 31, has to face court after she abuse Adelaide Crow’s player Eddie Betts on Facebook. She could possibly be charged with using a carry service to menace, harass and offend. She has since denied that she was being racist and, as a part – Aboriginal (her words), she didn’t find ape references offensive.

Effects of emotional and cyber abuse

A few days ago, I watched a mini – series on Iview, “Cyberhate”, by former model, Tara Moss. On one of the episodes, she went to see a brain specialist to ask about the impact on the brain when being exposed to abuse online. The findings were shocking. Abusive messages affected a similar region of the brain that causes physical pain.  (If you are in Australia, I’d encourage you to look at the series through IView. It’s very informative, but also confronting. Be careful if you have any underlying issues or are triggered by discussions – and quite graphic and brutal incidence of verbal, cyber and homophobic abuse. The Orlando shooting last year is also referenced). confirms that bullying can have a major impact on brain development in childhood, even going as far as saying it has the same effects as child abuse. The short – term and long – term effects of bullying are well – known: depression, anxiety, drug and drug and alcohol abuse in adulthood. It also causes stress, which, if bad enough, can leave the immune system compromised. Bullying victims can also become perpetrators themselves, creating a cycle of victims and perpetrators.

So what is the solution?

From what I watched from Cyberhate, just being stricter on cyber – bullying legally may be easier said than done. What makes it complicated is that, according to the series, a number of self – confessed “trolls” often (not always) show signs of an anti – social personality  disorder, including psychopathy. They may exhibit Machiavellianism; one of the so – called “Dark Triad” along with psychopathy and narcissism.

 I think the law plays a part, but so does psychiatric therapies to help treat those suffering from anti – social personality traits. However, the Harley Therapy Counselling Blog does warn that those who have Machiavellianism are unlikely to go and get treatment on their own accord, so, the only solution I can think of is court appointment when an offence, including cyber offences occur. For offenders who do not suffer any form of psychiatric or personality disorder, there does need to be consequences, including, I believe legal repercussions. Fortunately, young people are more aware of cyber bullying now and its repercussions on both the perpetrators and the victims, since they are talking about it more in high schools. Are the warnings strong enough? I’m not sure.

I think the place we can start is get rid of the “sticks and stones” myth. Words do matter. Words do have an impact. Bullying of any sort should be condemned and treated seriously.

What do you think can or should be done to combat cyber – bullying? 

(For Australians): If this post has brought up any issues for you, contact Lifeline: 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636. For people of other countries, feel free to put any numbers of mental health services in your country, please comment below.