Decades ago, when a young girl would come home in tears, after braving schoolyard taunts, her parents would often pull her into their arms and quip, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” As recently as the ’80s, when I was a girl, “sticks and stones” was the most popular way of addressing bullying. It was a cute, temporary balm with a moderate success rate. Armed with her newly taught axiom, a girl might puff out her chest with confidence and deflect whatever teasing came her way. It was also possible that, try as she might, she just couldn’t convince herself that the words she was hearing day in and day out weren’t having a debilitating effect on her esteem.

With the advent of the internet and the rise of incessant online commentary, words have become irretrievable in ways they weren’t all those decades ago. It’s one thing for 20 kids on a playground to overhear an insult; it’s another entirely for 200 billion people to share, retweet, upload, and email that insult within two days’ time. The viral nature of today’s insults make them near-impossible to just shrug off. Instead, they metastasize into even larger, more complex insults that have ways of cropping back up just when you think everyone’s forgotten them.

In her Washington Post op-ed yesterday, Sally Jenkins somehow managed to make this point–that online, viral taunting and criticism erode girls’ confidence–while also trotting out the tired “sticks and stones” meme. The title of her piece, “Gabby Douglas needs to avoid letting others set the narrative for her,” suggests that Douglas, at 16, has the ability to deflect the hundreds of thousands of retweeted and shared news briefs on her appearance, her mother’s bankruptcy, and her “loss of focus.” Jenkins claims:

“Clearly, someone should have shut her down and taken away her electronics. It took just four days to suck all the vibrancy out of Douglas. First, she awoke after the achievement of a lifetime to a ludicrous, racially loaded conversation about the neatness of her coif, started by a bunch of Twitter critics…. We moved from there to a revelation that her mother, Natalie Hawkins, was forced to file for bankruptcy this year, and that she is somewhat estranged from her father, an Air Force staff sergeant who served in the Middle East, over child support issues. ”

But would that have been enough? And would that have protected her mother, who still would’ve been fielding all the intrusive questions her daughter was blocking? It’s naive to think that, by avoiding Twitter or shutting down internet access entirely, Douglas wouldn’t have become aware of Hairgate or the coverage of her parents’ financial problems. It’s naive to think anything she did would’ve insulated her from all the speculating, judgmental, critical words that have proliferated since she got to London. Reporters have been actively soliciting her opinions on these stories–essentially repeating taunts and digs–the whole time she’s been there.

It’s also naive to think that the sticks and stones approach would help her–or anyone else who’s experiencing written attacks online. Take hurdler Lolo Jones, who tearfully explained to a reporter the damaging effects of pervasive criticism: “It’s hard to be positive all the time when so many people doubt your abilities.”

The “sticks and stones”/”dirt off your shoulders”/”hi, haters” approach isn’t working any better for Jones at 29 as people like Sally Jenkins (unrealistically) expect it to work for Gabby Douglas. We need to broach the subject of words and their power differently. Rather than placing the onus on the critiqued (and harassed) to ignore what’s being said about them, we need to allow for them to just as frank and direct about the effect of these incessant criticisms on their esteem and their performance.

We owe it to the girls in our lives to just let the “sticks and stones” thing die out with our generation. Hopefully, they’ll spend far less time playing to the culture’s expectation that they “toughen up” and “just ignore them” and more time taking people to task for the damage they’re causing.

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