Words hurt


Words should bless teens rather than bring them down

By Tim Neufeld

The recent weekend retreat didn’t end well for a group of urban teens. Coming home from their “mountain high" with 800 other Fresno, Calif., students, an inner-city youth group rode on a bus that experienced mechanical difficulties. Two things happened when the bus was quickly pulled over on a steep downhill grade. First, the driver misjudged the length of the turnout, and the bus lurched as it bounced into the hillside. Next, the cabin filled with smoke from overheating brakes. Frightened and confused, teens began to panic and opened the emergency exit. Fortunately there were no injuries, and the bus was not damaged.

While this in itself was a traumatic experience, the mechanical problems were not the primary reason the weekend was ruined. Further complicating the matter, a local news agency posted an inaccurate “breaking” report of the experience on their Facebook page.

The organization errantly reported that a “crash” was “caused when driver was distracted by unruly teens trying to open escape door while the bus was in motion.” In a later post, the news agency said an “unruly teen trying to open an escape door distracted the driver and contributed to the wreck.” This reporting was hearsay and falsely accused innocent teens of causing the “wreck.”

But that still wasn't the worst part. The teens, able to follow along on Facebook in real-time, were upset that they were being blamed, but they were devastated when the comments on the post began to stream in.

Facebook readers were quick to judge, leaving a barrage of hurtful accusations. "It was the teens' fault." "He needs to pay for all the damage he caused." "…Snot nosed punk child!!!" "Bully." "He deserves extreme punishment." That’s just a mild sampling. There were a lot more comments, many full of curses and condemnation.

Due to irresponsible reporting and hundreds of ensuing negative comments on social media, a group of urban teens was demoralized, stereotyped and falsely accused.

“What’s the harm?” many might ask. The harm comes in this: These kids are from one of the toughest, at-risk neighborhoods in Fresno, and such treatment reinforces the negative view of life they already hold.

They don’t have nice schools, well-stocked grocery stores or the latest movie theaters. They are at risk of joining gangs, becoming pregnant and dropping out of school. They don’t have transportation, discretionary spending money or stable home environments.

However, I know these kids. They smile, they laugh, they sing. They dance, they create, they overcome. They surmount adversities that would cripple the average teenager. They are real heroes to me and undeserving of the criticism they received.

Negative words hurt adolescents who are continually bombarded by accusations and stereotypes. At such a formative stage of development, repetitive destructive messages tend to impair the identity of a teenager.

We need to use words that bless our youth, not bring them down. When we have the chance to encourage teens, especially those who have grown up hearing mostly curses and condemnations, let’s resist the temptation to make pessimistic assumptions and work hard to counter negative influences with words of grace, hope, affirmation and love. That would be a noble and appropriate use of social media.

Tim Neufeld is associate professor of Contemporary Christian Ministries at Fresno Pacific University. He blogs about church and culture at www.timneufeld.blogs.com and can be followed on Facebook (timothyneufeld) and Twitter (@timothyneufeld).


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