THE BLOG

Words Can Break Bones Too

11/05/2015 12:02 BST | Updated 10/05/2016 10:59 BST

The way we are communicating in the year 2015 immensely differs from how we have at any time throughout our history. Human beings in modern society use their vocal chords less and their fingers more. Typing has definitely overtaken talking.

If we so desire, there are a multitude of virtual channels where we can reach an enormous audience. Fifteen years ago you'd need a megaphone in a busy location to get the attention of a large crowd - and even then you'd only be able to reach a couple of hundred at best. Nowadays anyone can reach millions of eyeballs by sharing their views on a social platform, and adding a trending hashtag.

I love the fact that everyone in today's world can have a public voice - after all, at this very moment I am writing my views for others to read. In saying that however, I proceed with the greatest of caution when I publish anything (be it a tweet, Facebook post or blog). I'm aware that whether it's my intention or not, my words can have a significant impact on the people reading them.

As children, many of us were taught the saying: "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me". The intention is clearly to help a young person develop a thick skin. As an adult I'm unconvinced that this saying holds any value. No matter how you slice it, words can be incredibly hurtful. By our very nature, we human beings are vulnerable creatures. Every single one of us has an individual story.We all have proverbial 'sore spots' and insecurities.

People tend to automatically think of physical violence when they hear about 'bullying' but the reality is 'cyber bullying' with words can be just as devastating.

I recently read a report in the Times about the alarming impacts of cyber bullying. Dr Natasha Bijlani, a psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Roehampton, was quoted as saying that teenagers and young adults were suffering low self-esteem, body image issues and self-harming tendencies because their childhood had been scarred by online and digital abuse.

Until recent times, human communication on our planet had been face to face and set in some kind of social context - whereby parents, teachers or friends were aware of what was going on and could intervene. The setting in today's digital world is significantly different.

People are a lot less accountable for what they say in online social forums. Faceless characters can air derogatory remarks, make threats or spread nasty rumours - and quite often there is no intervention from online bystanders.

The new digital age provides a home for our evil inclination to assassinate other peoples' characters with the simple click of a key. It is for this reason that we need give special consideration to what we publish and the effect it may have on others.

What you see in someone's public profile is far from what you get. Curation of our content and an attempt to perfect all online interactions make us appear less vulnerable than we truly are. Assuming that another human being is strong enough to receive hurtful criticism is reckless and naïve. We should never underestimate the power of words.

In previous times, body language gave us an indication of the impact of words on others. Now that we are publicly airing so many of our views behind a screen, the human element has completely disappeared.

The former Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth aptly stated the following:

"The technology is new but the moral challenge is old. Judaism's sages were eloquent on the dangers of what they called evil speech, by which they meant derogatory, demeaning or offensive words. They called this a cardinal sin and said that it destroys three people, the one who says it, the one he says it against, and the one who listens in. Words injure; they hurt; they wound. And every new technology that allows us to share words more widely calls for a renewed insistence on the ethics of communication. Free speech does not mean speech that costs nothing. It means speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others. Forget this and free speech will prove to be very expensive indeed."

It can't be put much better than that. Sticks and stones aren't the only things that cause scars, so we must choose our words carefully.