I can still hear my mother’s age-old warning loud and clear in my mind: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Like most children, I didn't exactly have much of a filter growing up, so the expression was something like a broken record on a loop for me. Going into my teen years, though, I was much more hesitant about what I said and how I said it, because the message finally got through: Yes, sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can also hurt you, which is why IKEA’s anti-bullying video is so brilliant. The Swedish furniture store compared the growth of two plants to show young students just how debilitating hurtful words can be, and the results were eye-opening for the kids, and anyone who has a heart.
As someone who was bullied from early elementary school well into junior year of high school, I personally know all too well what constant verbal abuse can do to your mind. It's important that schools and parents teach kids how to deal with being bullied, but also how not to become one, too — especially now, when bullying has become so much more than children pushing one another down on the playground, or calling one another mean names. According to the federal definition of bullying, which was released by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Education back in 2014, there are two categories of bullying (direct and indirect), and four types of bullying (physical, verbal, in relationships, and damage to property). In other words, bullying is much more complicated, and often involves so much more, than pushing and shoving on the playground, which is exactly what IKEA is calling attention to with this experiment.
For its experiment, IKEA had kids verbally bully one plant, and compliment another, to see how each plant progressed in their respective environments.
According to StopBullying.gov, between one in four and one in three students say they've been bullied in U.S. schools, and "most bullying happens in middle school," with verbal and social as the most common forms of abuse that young teens experience. Through its experiment, IKEA was able to show students the very real, very toxic effects these types of bullying can have on someone (or something, in this case), right before their eyes.
In honor of Anti-Bullying Day on May 4, IKEA brought two plants to various classrooms around the United Arab Emirates. Each plant was housed in a glass case, given the same amount of sunlight and water, and put on display for the students to study over the course of 30 days. The kids recorded different audio messages for the plants, one of which was forced to listen to bullying messages day in and day out, while the other enjoyed positive audio messages and compliments during the 30 days.
After one month of internalizing these different messages, the results, IKEA said in its video of the experiment, spoke for themselves: At the end of the 30 days, one student described the plant who listened to positive messages as “thriving” and “beautiful,” compared to its plotted counterpart, whose bullying messages ultimately led to the plant’s demise — or, at least, so it seems.
This isn’t the first time language was shown to have a real effect on how plants grow and thrive.
Obviously, no one outside of these types of experiments really knows the specifics of how each plant is being taken care of, but setting aside factors like how much soil they're plotted in or how exactly they're watered, it's clear the audio messages in the IKEA experiment had some effect on the greenery. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it, especially when you consider how it feels when you hear someone say negative things about you. Whether it's about your body, your beliefs, or your character, any time someone puts you down, it stings to some extent, right? Now imagine having to hear these harmful words on a loop for 30 days straight. That's bound to have some sort of an impact, don't you think?
This phenomenon isn’t exactly new to the science world, either. Botanists are big on sweet-talking their crops into fruition, so MythBusters performed their own experiment to see whether or not verbal, positive reinforcement could actually help plants grow. They split 60 pea plants into three greenhouses, where each group listened to a different audio soundtrack. One group listened to “loving praise,” another “cruel insults,” while the third grew in silence.
According to the Discovery Channel website, the experiment lasted a total of 60 days, and the results were pretty surprising: The plants left to grow sans soundtrack grew the poorest, while both groups that listened to some sort of audio were pretty equal in size and quality, despite one soundtrack being more positive than the other.
IKEA's experiment, however, proves positive interactions always win over negative ones.
You really can’t tell how your actions or word choices will affect someone else’s life until after the fact, and IKEA did an amazing job demonstrating how verbal bullying can have physical, tangible consequences, in as little as one month. Too often, many people are just oblivious to the ways in which negative, hurtful language can affect you, and the earlier we can teach these lessons to children, the better.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the cost of bullying is high, and the effects can last long after the actual harassment subsides. Things like poor self-esteem, depression, and physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches, the UK medical resource explains, are just a few examples of what can happen as a result of bullying, and of just being around this kind of negativity in general. But this doesn’t just apply to children; adults could benefit from a little more positivity, too.
Exerting positivity into the universe is obviously beneficial for everyone, but it's especially good for your own well-being. For example, I recently decided I’m going to dial back on my instinct to gossip in social situations, mostly because talking badly about someone, or about anything in a negative context, just doesn’t make me feel good, period. But when I take my thoughts and put a positive spin on them, or think about someone I don't like in a brighter, more positive light, I immediately feel better about not just that one person or thing, but about myself, too.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who's noticed the domino effect, either. According to clinical psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D, being nice to others makes you feel happier overall. She wrote in an article for Psychology Today,
When we help others and do kind acts, it causes our brain to release endorphins, the chemicals that give us feelings of fervor and high spirits — similar to a "runner’s high." Doing something nice for someone also gives the brain a serotonin boost, the chemical that gives us that feeling of satisfaction and well-being.
So, if you have nothing nice to say, try again until you do. Unfortunately, there's more than enough negativity in this world; the more positivity you can spread, the more positivity you'll feel, and every step toward universal kindness is an important one.