Melania Trump set off a nationwide eye roll when she announced she would fight cyberbullying as first lady.
Taking a hammer to the tweeter in chief’s smartphone would certainly send a message.
Irony aside, what if she’s being earnest? After a year of little more than speeches and school photo ops, the first lady is finally doing something. On Tuesday, which happens to be her son Barron’s 12th birthday, she’s convening Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snap to discuss online harassment and promoting Internet safety.
Here’s the truth she might not hear from the tech giants: Websites have had bully-reporting tools and states have had bullying laws for more than a decade — but the problem isn’t getting much better. As of late 2016, a third of U.S. middle and high school students say they’ve been the victim of cyberbullying at some point, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said bullying had become a “serious public health problem.”
So what can be done? I visited a public elementary school teaching kids as young as kindergartners how to deal with the dark side of the Internet. And I spoke with students, educators, parents and researchers. They showed me that some of the most promising solutions for this online problem have their roots in the offline world.
In this first major push, Trump isn’t expected to unveil proposals but, rather, to ask the companies how they’re addressing problems such as trolls and promoting kindness, according to people invited to the meeting.
“We need much, much more,” said Parry Aftab, a lawyer and founder of WiredSafety, one of the oldest cybersafety groups. More resources for parents, more help for schools and more coordination on solutions, she said. “But very little of it has to do with new laws.”
Many parents struggle to keep up with apps, and many kids can’t figure where the line is between rudeness and bullying. It’s also not totally clear who’s responsible for policing bad behavior. State laws often say schools have to deal with the problem, but only about a dozen specify schools have authority over off-campus behaviors. Some schools add anti-cyberbullying efforts to the responsibilities of an already-overworked counselor, and zero-tolerance policies sometimes lead to underreporting of incidents.
I’m not hopeful that anybody — even the first lady — can control the president’s name-calling Twitter persona. But her experience as a mother, her life in the spotlight as a model and even the nastiness emanating from her own White House certainly give Trump a unique vantage point on bullying.
Here are five ideas the first lady could get behind.
Make “digital citizenship” education the new normal. In Jennifer Thor’s second- and third-grade class at Greenbrook Elementary in Danville, Calif., the final lesson on Friday was about the power of online communication. In one exercise, the students compared how each might have different reactions to the same emoji icon. In another, they made cartoons about a time someone was made to feel bad online — and how they could get a happy outcome by first cooling down and then talking to a trusted adult. “It’s important to teach kids to monitor their own behavior as well as filter all the stuff that’s out there,” Thor says. Even at age 8, some of these students shared personal experience with being attacked online.
This school uses a digital citizenship curriculum created by the nonprofit Common Sense. And it’s hardly alone: Some 54,000 schools — half of American schools — now use Common Sense’s free K-12 programs, and other organizations offer similar programs. Last year, Washington state mandated a more systemic public-education effort for digital citizenship and media literacy, and several other states, including California, are weighing similar laws. Next year, Common Sense plans to overhaul its lessons with even more of an emphasis on digital drama and hate speech.
Focus on bystanders. America might be able to learn from Finland. There, a national anti-bullying education program called KiVa has been shown to greatly benefit the students who experienced the most bullying. Its secret: a focus on increasing the empathy of bystanders, who can keep bullies from gaining status and power.
KiVa asks students to use role-playing exercises and computer simulations to think about how they would intervene to reduce bullying. Anti-bullying programs usually seek to reduce the overall rates of bullying, but KiVa’s focus on bystanders showed a significant mental health boost — reducing depression and improving self-esteem — for the victims of bullying.
Finnish culture may not translate exactly to American kids, but researchers are now studying how to the ideas might work here.
Make an ideas clearinghouse. The Obama administration convened a group of experts and created the website stopbullying.gov, but not much change followed. What’s missing is a place to help everyone share ideas and research on what works. We can’t expect teachers and parents to dig through academic and legal literature on this stuff.
“The government can lead efforts to help clarify for schools what works and then possibly even provide funding to implement those things,” says Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “We don’t know a lot about what works because we haven’t been able to evaluate programs.”
Demand more from tech companies. The worst-case scenario from this week’s White House meeting is that the tech companies just walk away with a photo op. We could insist on much more. That starts with making bully-reporting systems easier to use and parental control tools easier to find — perhaps even a selling point for their products. (Apple last week introduced a website with info on how to find all its parental controls but didn’t take any steps to make them more powerful or intuitive.)
“I would love to see just-in-time messages pop up,” suggests Stephen Balkam, the chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute, who was invited to the White House meeting. (He also serves as an adviser to Facebook and Twitter, and his organization gets some funding from tech companies.) He says the apps themselves could ask parents: “Have you checked yours and your kids’ privacy settings? Do you know how many hours per day your fourth-grader is online?”
But other solutions could be difficult: Should having a Facebook account if you are younger than 18 require a parent’s email address? And could social networks draw a firmer line on unacceptable behavior? “They need to start shutting down accounts of kids who are engaging in this stuff,” Aftab says. Game companies, she says, often take away accounts for trolling — but social networks tend to focus only on the most egregious cases.
Get kids in the room. One lesson from the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., is that teenagers who have grown up with social media are more skilled at using these tools than adults to build movements for issues they care about.
And the most effective voice to say bullying has gone too far is probably going to come from peers. “We’ve all dealt with it,” Ulysses Bergel, a 13-year-old from Wyckoff, N.J., told me. He’s now working with Aftab’s organization to develop an anti-cyberbullying app. “I think the kids in my generation are crucial to the solution, and this isn’t just Gen Z pride speaking.”