One year after Melania Trump launched her Be Best program, she announced Tuesday that she is expanding its most prominent component — combatting cyberbullying — to include a comprehensive push for online safety for children.
“This past year has shown me that children are vulnerable to more than just social media, and so I expanded one of my pillars to online safety,” the first lady said at an event in the Rose Garden celebrating her program’s anniversary.
Trump also said she is planning trips focused on children that will show the world “that the U.S. cares.” She did not offer much detail of her plans to expand Be Best, but key online safety issues facing children include sexting, overuse of screen time and learning to identify fake online news.
“It’s everything we want to protect our kids from while pointing them in the right direction toward positive online behaviors,” said Stephen Balkam, the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, who attended the first lady’s announcement. “It’s a good thing.”
Balkam said a switch from a focus on cyberbullying to a broader online safety platform could also “help with the optics that come with this particular White House.”
The president has 60.1 million Twitter followers on his @realDonaldTrump account, and his tweets have often been called out as at odds with his wife’s Be Best message of spreading kindness online.
Since Be Best was launched, President Trump has gone online to label people: “bozo,” “dumb as a rock,” “psycho,” “low IQ, ” “weirdo” and “crazed lunatics.”
The president sat in the front row of his wife’s event, applauding. Many top members of the administration also attended, including Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Be Best, in addition to online safety, has two other pillars: children’s social and emotional well-being, and opioid abuse. The first lady has focused on the babies born to addicts, but now she will expand her opioid work to “include kids of all ages.”
One memorable moment during the 45-minute event was when Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, took the microphone and urged parents to vaccinate their children.
“Get them to get their shots!” Collins said emphatically. Measles was basically eliminated in the United States years ago, but recently the disease has spread in areas where parents have not vaccinated their children.
Microsoft’s Toni Townes-Whitley spoke about making parents more aware of “family settings” they can use to limit screen time and promote “digital civility.”
And Sinclair TV personality Eric Bolling, whose son died of an accidental opioid overdose, lavished praise on Melania Trump. He said she has saved lives by talking about opioid abuse, including at large events with him. Bolling, formerly of Fox News, called her “the most important and accomplished first lady in American history. Full stop.” That immediately set off a heated online debate on what first lady was the “most important and accomplished,” with comparisons drawn from Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton.
MaryAnne Borrelli, a professor of government at Connecticut College, said there is “power intrinsic to the office” of the first lady, but there has been considerable variation in how presidential spouses, from Pat Nixon to Michelle Obama, have used it.
“It varies, and it’s not linear,” she said.
So far, Melania Trump has kept a relatively light public schedule, but many first ladies became more active in their second term. Laura Bush, for instance, made most of her international trips during her husband’s second term, visiting 67 countries.
Trump made one solo foreign trip last year — and accompanied her husband on others — and took 15 trips within the United States. More trips are planned, she said.
But at least so far, Be Best is not as widely understood as several past East Wing initiatives — and even its name is puzzling to many.
To carry out her large mandate, Trump runs an unusually small office, with only 12 employees. She announced Tuesday that she had appointed a “Be Best ambassador” from USAID, the international aid agency, and called on other government agencies to appoint ambassadors “to better highlight and promote the programs and services offered to parents and children.”
Online bullying continues to be a huge issue. About 15 percent of high school students said they were bullied through Instagram, Facebook, texting or other social media sometime in the past 12 months, according to a 2017 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.
Justin Patchin, a director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, said he doesn’t really hear much about Be Best.
“I am not entirely sure what it is,” he said in a phone interview, adding that what is really needed is money for research on the best programs and methods to curb online bullying.
Patchin said all over the country, parents ask what they can do when “high-profile individuals” not only call others names online but gain popularity by doing it.
“I don’t want to get political, but I just say, ‘Look, this is an opportunity for parents to say these kinds of things that are being said — whether it’s by the president, other politicians or other famous people — and if it’s hurtful, if it’s mean-spirited, if it’s disrespectful, that’s not how we treat other people,’ ” he said. “We shouldn’t denigrate them.”
Many on the front lines of the opioid crisis, while welcoming the attention from the first lady and the president, say the focus needs to shift from raising awareness to treatment and how to pay for it.
Nearly 48,000 Americans — about 130 people every day — died from overdosing on heroin, fentanyl and other opioids in 2017, according to the most recent CDC figures.
But instead of expanding health coverage for costly addiction treatments, many states and federal health programs are contracting.
“There is a lot this administration could be doing,” said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University.
Asked before the event whether there would be new funding for Be Best, Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, said, “A successful campaign doesn’t always mean spending money.”
“There are amazing and successful companies, programs and services already out there. They just need to be highlighted, promoted and replicated — and that is what Be Best will focus on in its second year,” she said.
Tuesday’s program ended when a Minnesota high school robotics team was applauded for building a motorized wheelchair for 5-year-old Rocco Zachow, who cannot walk.
And then the speakers were led to the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden for a reception of lemonade, cookies and lawn games for the children present.