The voters have spoken and Melania Trump is our next first lady. Typically, I wouldn’t give advice to someone about to occupy the east wing of the White House, but Mrs. Trump has said that she plans to use her new platform to help combat cyberbullying.
“We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media,” she said at a recent campaign speech in Pennsylvania.“ It will be one of the main focuses of my work, if I am privileged enough to become your first lady.”
Her timing is good considering how divisive the campaign has been. Cyberbullying doesn’t just affect kids. There are plenty of adults who have been guilty of using social media for name calling and disrespectful comments about people they don’t agree with and it’s time for all of us to start treating each other with a bit more courtesy because it’s the right thing to do and because children are watching.
And speaking of timing, election day was also the second day of the International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA) conference where hundreds of educators, counselors and bullying experts gathered in New Orleans to talk about how to combat both in-person and online bullying.
Mrs. Trump was obviously busy Monday and Tuesday, so she can be forgiven for not joining us in New Orleans, but had she attended, she would have learned a great deal about best practices for combating bullying.
A conference keynoter, educational psychologist Michele Borba, talked about empathy in her speech and in her book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.
I am convinced empathy is the answer to really stopping bullying because by nature, bullying is all about dysfunctional relationships,” she said in a recorded interview. She added, “empathy can be cultivated and seems to be lying dormant with a number of our kids,” and cited statistics from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research that, over the last 30 years, there has been “a 40 percent drop in empathy and a 58 percent increase in narcissism.
In other words, rather than simply combating bullying, it’s important to attack the root causes of the problem by encouraging social emotional learning and the development of what Dr. Borba calls “habits of empathy.” That includes being able to recognize feelings, having a moral identity to understand the needs of others, keeping your cool, practicing kindness and thinking about “us” not “them.”
Mrs. Trump seems to agree. “We need to teach our youth American values: Kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, cooperation,” she said in her Pennsylvania speech.
Teaching good habits isn’t just about preaching them. It’s about getting adults –- including parents, teachers and people who speak in public to role model empathetic behavior and avoid derisive comments about others. In that regard, Mrs. Trump has her work cut out for her.
Patricia Agatston, IBPA president and co-author of Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, said that cyberbullying is most problematic when it’s combined with in-person bullying.
“We know that traditional bullying results in higher rates of anxiety and depression and even higher risks of suicidal ideation and lower self-esteem and the research shows that we’re seeing similar impacts from cyberbullying as well. It’s most likely to be harmful when there is that mixed harassment of bullying and cyberbullying that occur together,” she said in an interview.
The other keynote speaker, Sameer Hinduja, co-director the Cyberbullying Research Center and professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, said in an interview that some groups are more vulnerable than others.
“Our research shows that those who have indicated that they are not heterosexual are significantly more likely to be bullied and cyberbullied,” Hinduja said.
He added that they are also more likely to “have engaged in bullying and cyberbullying at times, which underscores their need for emotional support and assistance.”
And, as I said earlier, it’s not just kids. A 2014 Pew Research adult online harassment survey found that “fully 73 percent of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40 percent have personally experienced it. Young adults (18-29) are even more likely (65 percent) to report that they have experienced online harassment.”
Senior citizens can also be vulnerable. The 2012 AARP Bulletin reported that “Between 10 and 20 percent of residents in senior care homes are mistreated by peers.” And the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 national survey found that 27 percent of workers “have current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work.”
But Mrs. Trump is focusing on kids and that’s certainly a priority. As co-founder of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit that promotes internet safety, including combating cyberbullying, I wish her all the success in this important mission. And, because she’s the parent of a 10 year old, I’ll send her a copy of our free booklet called A Parents’ Guide to Cyberbullying.