School Climate & Safety

Some Free Advice for Melania Trump on Fighting Cyberbullying

By Evie Blad — November 04, 2016 4 min read
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Melania Trump said at a campaign event Thursday that she wants to do her part to combat the cruelty children experience on the internet, and she pledged to take up cyberbullying as her cause if her husband, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, wins the election.

“As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies,” Melania Trump said in Pennsylvania. “Children and teenagers can be fragile. They are hurt when they are made fun of, or made to feel less in looks or intelligence. This makes their life hard and can force them to hide and retreat. Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers. It is never okay when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground, and it is absolutely unacceptable when it’s done by someone with no name hiding on the Internet.”

If Melania Trump wants to take on cyberbullying the way Michelle Obama took on school lunches, where should she start? Here’s some advice from your humble blogger, research, and the internet hordes who responded to her speech.

Talk to Your Husband About His Tweets

Predictably, people took to the internet Thursday to note that if Trump wants to promote cyber civility, she might want to start with her own husband. Donald Trump’s campaign has been marked by constant questions about his temperament and a regular stream of criticisms and insults about reporters, opponents, and everyone else on his Twitter account. Last month, the New York Times even published a list of the hundreds of people and things Trump has insulted on Twitter since he launched his campaign. So Mrs. Trump’s remarks were met with responses like this.

National teachers unions, which have endorsed Donald Trump’s opponent, Sec. Hillary Clinton, claim his coarse campaign rhetoric has led to a “Trump effect” marked by an uptick of bullying in classrooms. But researcher who study bullying and its effects say it’s too early to draw such conclusions. Still, leading by example might be a good idea if the Trumps move into the White House. It would certainly keep the focus on would-be first lady Trump’s speeches on the very real effects of bullying on the lives of children, rather than on the perceived hypocrisy of adults.

Study Up On the Relationship Between Cyberbullying and In-Person Bullying

While media outlets often portray cyberbullying as a unique phenomenon, research increasingly shows that mean behavior on the internet is often an extension of the harassment students face in-person, both in and out of school.

While it brings some unique First Amendment challenges, response and prevention efforts for cyberbullying are really just extensions of the work schools and parents do for traditional bullying, researchers say.

Some of those best practices include:

  • Encouraging positive behaviors on the front end by making expectations clear to students and finding ways to support social and emotional growth.
  • Schools should have clear policies for reporting bullying, and they should respond quickly and effectively by investigating reports and responding to problems.
  • Avoiding “quick fixes” like one-time assemblies or slogans.

It’s also important to understand that bullying extends beyond harmful words. Researchers say bullying is intentional, repeated behavior that is designed to inflict hurt. It also involves an imbalance of power between the victim and perpetrator. Online and in person, that can include behaviors that socially isolate students, lead them to feel singled out, or prey on their vulnerabilities.

Familiarize Yourself With Existing Anti-Bullying Efforts and the State and National Level

According to the most recent federal data, 23.1 percent of students ages 12-18 report being bullied and 6.9 percent report being bullied online.

The Obama administration has made big efforts to tackle the problem by pulling together interagency task forces to explore the federal role, by funding research to examine possible solutions, and by aggressively investigating civil rights complaints in schools. (Schools can be found in violation of civil rights laws for inadequate responses to bullying based on race, religion, and other demographic categories.)

After Montana adopted its anti-bullying law, every state in the country now has one. But some groups have said many of those laws don’t have enough “teeth” because states don’t enforce them or because they weren’t written with enough requirements to begin with.

Some, including Hillary Clinton, have spoken in favor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal law that would set requirements for schools’ anti-bullying policies. You can read about Hillary Clinton’s anti-bullying plan here.

Photo: Melania Trump arrives for the third presidential debate between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on Oct. 19 in Las Vegas. --Evan Vucci/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.