WASHINGTON (Circa) -- First Lady Melania Trump has elevated the issue of cyberbullying to the national stage but President Donald Trump's combative online habits have led to some skepticism about whether her initiative can be successful.
On Monday Mrs. Trump addressed the Cyberbullying Prevention Summit in Rockville, Maryland, advocating the "safe and responsible use of social media" and warning of the "destructive and harmful" ways it can be misused. Her speech was part of her "Be Best" campaign, launched in May to combat online bullying and create a culture of kindness and respect among the next generation of Americans.
Mrs. Trump's work on the issue from the East Wing has often seemed at odds with President Trump's angry tweets from the West Wing.
Trump, the most followed world leader on Twitter, regularly uses the platform to hurl insults at politicians, celebrities, athletes or disparage entire groups of people. In the past week, President Trump denounced a former White House employee as "a crazed, crying lowlife" and a "dog," called the former CIA director a "hack" and referred to federal investigators "a National Disgrace."
Answering critics of President Trump's Twitter habits, the first lady's communications director said Mrs. Trump "is aware of the criticism but it will not deter her from doing what she feels is right."
Advocates of bullying prevention are hopeful Mrs. Trump's "Be Best" initiative will succeed, but some question whether her message can outshine the example being set for online discourse by President Trump.
"I really hope her efforts don't get overshadowed by some of the behavior we see from the president, on Twitter especially," said Jennifer Hanley, director of government and policy outreach for the Family Online Safety Institute. "If anything, I hope parents and kids see some of the negative language being used by the president and use that as a teachable moment to talk about how not to treat people online."
Hanley, who attended the Monday cyberbullying conference, told Circa that she and others were initially skeptical of an anti-cyberbullying campaign coming from the Trump White House. However, Mrs. Trump has pressed ahead, met with stakeholders to discuss the problem while openly acknowledging she would be criticized for her husband's online activities.
"We really appreciate that she is using her platform to highlight this issue ... to talk about bullying and bring more attention and resources to the problem and address some of the good things that are happening to tackle this," Hanley added.
Mrs. Trump's appearance at Monday's summit, hosted by the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, marks the first time a first lady has attended the event since 2010 when the Departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services began hosting it.
After wrestling with the contradictions between the first lady's efforts and the president's sometimes "uncivil" tweets, Justin Patchin, co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, is also hopeful that Mrs. Trump will succeed.
"I think a lot of people are either extremely skeptical or outright antagonistic toward the effort. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and see what she can come up with," he said. The Cyberbullying Research Center has made itself available to collaborate with the White House.
Even before President Trump won the election, Mrs. Trump pledged to use her office to improve the online environment for children. She again picked up the mantle of stopping cyberbullying at a speech before the United Nations last September and formalized her campaign in May launching the "Be Best" initiative.
After more than a year and a half, the work is still in its early stages and has not been made easier by President Trump's regular outbursts on Twitter.
"I think it does make her job more difficult in trying to own this as an issue," Patchin said of Trump's use of social media. "That doesn't mean she can't make significant progress, but it does create more challenges."
Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a clinical professor at Yale University's psychiatry division and researcher on predicting and preventing violence, warned that Mrs. Trump's efforts are too little to counter the influence of the president.
"The culture shapes the behavior, and the position of presidency is among the greatest authorities to shape culture. It is not confined to cyberbullying but unleashes a cascade of norm-setting that condones bullying and the violation of others’ rights in ways that have national and international consequences," she warned.
Earlier this year, Dr. Lee led a group of 27 other psychiatric professionals in writing a book warning of the "dangerous" impact of President Trump's mental state on the nation.
"From my own research, the president has a much greater influence on general violence rates (not just cyberbullying) than Congress or various economic policies alone," Lee told Circa.
She attributed recent increases in schoolyard bullying and violent hate crimes to President Trump's rhetoric and tweets and warned of "more to come." Mrs. Trump's efforts "are admirable," Lee concluded, "but given the type of damages we are trying to counter, they are too narrow and too feeble, in my opinion."
HOW PERVASIVE IS CYBERBULLYING?
Across the country, there are daily incidents of students in middle school and high school being harassed on social media sites, chat rooms or through instant messaging platforms. Like traditional bullying, the effects of cyberbullying can include increased depression, anxiety as well as lower self-esteem and academic achievement. At the extreme, some kids have been driven to suicide or experienced long-term trauma as a result of online bullying.
At the Monday summit, Joseph Grunwald, now a student at the University of Texas and activist, shared his experience of being bullied online in high school. "Because the bullying was also online, I couldn't escape it, no matter where I was," he said. "In addition bullying is not just confined to the school setting. It happens in our homes, it happens in our communities and it happens at the national level."
Without further research, it is difficult to say how pervasive cyberbullying is. Some estimates suggest one in four children is subject to traditional face-to-face bullying.
Patchin and his colleague Dr. Sameer Hinduja have estimated as many as 25 to 30 percent fo students have been cyberbullied, with 10 to 12 percent reporting being cyberbullied in the last 30 days.
The prevalence of online bullying does not appear to be increasing in recent years and though it has received more attention, it is not at epidemic levels.
"Bullying is changing," explained Melissa Mercado, a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Violence Prevention. "What once took place in the schoolyard has now also become digital. It is no longer contained to a physical location."
Social media sites, online chat rooms and instant messaging platforms have made it possible for bullying to happen all day, every day and a single bullying event can go viral. In 2017, the CDC's Youth Risk Survey found nearly 15 percent of high school students reported being cyberbullied.
On Monday, Mercado released the findings of a CDC joint study with the Youth Internet Safety Survey. According to preliminary results, as many as 48 percent of youth surveyed admitted to perpetrating cyberbullying. That included making rude or nasty comments online, embarrassing or harassing someone, spreading rumors or sharing something that was meant to be private. Other students reported either launching or using websites whose purpose was to make fun of someone.
A smaller percentage of students, 11 percent, admitted to being the victims of cyberbullying, which was characterized as feeling worried or threatened because of online harassment or directly experiencing a threat or harassment online.
These discrepancies in quantifying the problem point to the need for more research, Hanley said. It also underscores the need to develop strategies to improve kids' resilience and overall well-being, which requires partnerships among communities, social media companies and the government.
"We're all responsible," Hanley emphasized. "We call it building a culture of responsibility because it doesn't just fall on one person or one company. We have to have teachers, parents, law enforcement (when things get really bad) and we need companies taking action." Most important and most promising, she added, are initiatives led by students who are standing up against bullying.