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Opinion Essay: Reflection on Peer Verbal Abuse

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$444 million. 444 3 bedroom houses in Auckland, 23,368 orders of avocado on toast, 17,760 of the latest Suzuki Swift, or the cost of cyberbullying in NZ. We all have stories. We all know stories. They’re just names, words. Apparently, they shouldn’t hurt. Brush them off, walk them off, “grow up”. That’s not true and the statistics don’t lie. If words don’t hurt then why is there such a high cost to verbal abuse?

The age-old rhetoric “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” may have worked in the past (that is questionable) but is urgently due for a makeover. In January this year, a 13-year-old boy in Ohio in the United States of America committed suicide after unrelenting teasing from his school “mates”. Taunts over unfashionable clothing turned into a lifelong devastating consequence that was irreversible.

We needn’t look overseas for examples of words hurting either. Last year, a senior employee at Oranga Tamariki attempted suicide after continuous verbal abuse and sexual harassment. In 2013, a Wellington teenager took her life after extensive bullying from other students including messages telling her to “go kill urself hahahaha”. The fact that people say words don’t hurt is a blatant lie.

Personal stories leave no doubt of the tragic tales that words can cause. Scientific research backs this up too. Dr Martin Teicher and his team from Harvard Medical School surveyed young adults between the ages of 18 to 25 about their history of peer verbal abuse. The participants also underwent brain imaging. Verbal abuse during the ages of 11 to 14 was associated with significantly more damage in the connections of the brain between the two hemispheres. Overwhelmingly but perhaps unsurprisingly as you are beginning to get the picture, verbal abuse during those ages was also associated with later anxiety, depression, drug use and other psychiatric symptoms. Brushing cruel words off is not the solution.

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Unfortunately, it’s not just clueless children that cause harm with their words. This is a widespread epidemic and I have one name for you. Israel Folau. Donald Trump’s another one too but that’s a whole other book. Now, just to be clear, I think everyone should be able to believe in what they want (Pastafarians, I hear you). As a role model, whose speech reaches far and wide, Folau should be aware of the effects his words can have. He is in a position of power. His words reinforce the damaging discourse that people don’t belong, and are wrong for what they believe in or who they love. I’m not religious and so Hell doesn’t have quite the same meaning for me but I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Christian and have somebody tell you that because you don’t prescribe to the Bible’s sense of normal, you will go to Hell.

Now, the devil appears on my other shoulder chanting “Free speech! Free speech!”. I hear you. Yes, although it may not seem that way, I do also think that people should be able to express their thoughts as well. In saying that, free speech is not an excuse for bullying, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of hate speech. There are limitations on free speech and for good reason. Words hurt if you didn’t get that by now.

Words we speak contribute to the culture we have, a culture where people feel like they cannot be themselves and are punished for that. I’m not perfect, and nobody is, we all have our moments where things that should not be said, are. We should take ownership for our words, and watch what we say because, despite the many ways we are told words don’t hurt, or shouldn’t hurt, the statistics and stories paint a picture of the opposite.

The teenager who constantly receives messages that she’s too fat so she starves herself. The kid who is gay who’s bullied for who he loves so goes on to harm himself. Think about what you say and be cautious. There’s plenty of other ways NZ could use that $444 million. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can do a lot of damage. One word can change a person’s life, make that for the better. Not for the worse.

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Opinion Essay: Reflection on Peer Verbal Abuse. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
“Opinion Essay: Reflection on Peer Verbal Abuse.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022,
Opinion Essay: Reflection on Peer Verbal Abuse. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 May 2023].
Opinion Essay: Reflection on Peer Verbal Abuse [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2023 May 24]. Available from:
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