First Lady Melania Trump's cyber bullying campaign is 'a work in progress'

Melania Trump, America's historic first lady, pledged before the election that she would lead a campaign against cyber bullying.

But so far, say leaders and activists in anti-cyber bullying efforts, neither Trump nor her East Wing staff have reached out, nor have they responded to offers to help.

"I'm not seeing any movement towards an initiative that she's endorsed," says first lady historian Myra Gutin of Rider University in New Jersey. "She's hired some staff but not up to the level that other first ladies have done by now."

Trump's press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, says the anti-cyber bullying effort is still a work in progress. "Mrs. Trump is being very thoughtful when it comes to building out her initiatives," Grisham said in an email. Also, her staff now numbers 10, and she's taking her time hiring because she values "quality over quantity."

Trump herself declined to comment, as she has routinely since she became first lady. But on Nov. 3, 2016, she attracted widespread attention when she announced in a rare speech that she would fight cyber bullying as her first-lady cause if her husband, Donald Trump, were elected.

“Technology has changed our universe. But like anything that is powerful it can have a bad side," she told an audience of suburban women in Berwyn, Pa. "Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and to teenagers.”

Her declaration brought out plenty of ire on social media from those who consider Donald Trump the definition of a cyber bully given his aggressive social media attacks against anyone who piques his fury.

Lady Gaga, whose Born This Way Foundation aims to combat bullying, especially of LGBT kids, was scathing, though Gaga's representative did not return a message from USA TODAY seeking comment on how she feels about Melania Trump now.

But there was no mocking from other anti-cyber bullying activists, who say they remain patient and hopeful that Trump will launch her initiative soon.

"We have tried to reach out to her and offer the services and expertise of our organization; so far, we have not heard back," says Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder of the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development in New York. Still, "I’m delighted that Melania Trump chose cyber bullying. I think she could do a tremendous amount for the children and adolescents who are suffering as a result of it."

Since the election, excited activists have been sending Trump advice and proposals, such as holding an annual online safety summit at the White House, says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University.

"We haven’t heard anything from FLOTUS at all (so) I’m not in a position to speak to what she is or is not doing since we’re not connected yet," says Hinduja.

He says "everyone in my line of work has been buzzing" since Trump's speech. He says "good progress" has been made on cyber bullying over the last eight years by the White House, the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education.

"And we’re just hoping that there will be continued and even increased support and contributions from the highest office in the land," he says. "That is tremendously exciting for all of us."

The Family Online Safety Institute welcomed Trump to the cause in December, issuing a set of recommendations such as: Inaugurating an annual Online Safety Summit at the White House; creating a chief online safety officer; and persuading the new administration to set up a $25 million research-and-education fund over five years to create educational programs for children and their parents on cyber bullying and online safety in general.

"We are still waiting to hear from her or her office about how she wishes to take this topic on," says Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Washington-based group. "The only indication we’ve had is that speech before the election. And then, of course, she has mostly remained in New York. So there's not been a great deal of movement yet.

"But of those I've spoken to, including in my own organization, we’re cautiously optimistic."

Susan Swearer, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Bullying Research Network, says she's not been contacted by Trump's team. "It’s such important work and there’s a huge need for creating kinder and supportive online and offline spaces, so I hope FLOTUS decides to engage in this important work," she says.

Donna Rice Hughes, a key figure in a 1987 political scandal that ended a Democratic presidential campaign, has been a respected leader on Internet safety for kids for more than two decades through her Enough is Enough non-profit. She endorsed Donald Trump and though she hasn't heard yet from Melania, she is convinced it will happen and that mothers especially will relate to the new FLOTUS.

"She is modeling what it means to have a balanced life and the difficulty most women who have families are having in trying to keep that all in balance," says Hughes. "I am not at all concerned or surprised she's taking some time. It's very clear right now her priority is her son. She’s got four years minimum, maybe eight, to deal with cyber bullying."

Could President Trump's online blasts undermine the first lady's cause? Possibly, says Balkam, but it would depend on the specifics of her initiative. If she focuses on, say, child-on-child cyber bullying, "it's possible nothing he does undermines what she tries to do. But let’s wait and see."

Combating digital bullying is not a new cause nor an inconsequential one, according to the experts and activists who have been laboring in relative obscurity for years, concerned about analysis (from the Cyberbullying Research Center in Orlando, for instance) showing that two-thirds of students who experience cyber bullying say it affected their ability to learn and feel safe at school.

Monica Lewinsky has been a recent high-profile voice on the issue: She called for an end to the "culture of humiliation" in a powerful TED talk in 2015. "Cruelty is nothing new. But online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained and permanently accessible," she said then. "Millions of people can stab you with their words and that's a lot of pain."

She would seem to be a perfect ally to Melania Trump — and in fact, she defended the Trumps' young son, Barron, after he was mocked online — but her spokeswoman, Dini von Mueffling, confirmed to USA TODAY that so far Lewinsky has not heard from Trump.

But nothing beats a first lady's spotlight for focusing attention. So far, Trump has said nothing about cyber bullying in public, except on April 26, when she celebrated her 47th birthday at a lunch for Senate spouses at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Grisham confirmed Trump mentioned cyber bullying at the lunch, thanking the group for a donation they made in her name to an anti-bullying organization, which is the tradition of the Senate spouses group for every incoming new first lady. But the lunch was closed to the media at the behest of the group so there's no official transcript.

Soon after the election, Donald Trump said his third wife would not move into the White House immediately after the inauguration; instead, she would remain in New York so that Barron, 11, could finish the school year.

Grisham maintains she's still been "100% present" as first lady since Jan. 20, and anyway nowadays people can work remotely from anywhere.

For comparison, Michelle Obama also said her first priority would be her children when she became first lady in 2009, though she immediately was visible and active. She did not fully launch her first initiative, her campaign for healthy eating and against childhood obesity, until nine months after she came to the White House.

"With Mrs. Trump, who's not living here yet and who's just starting to assemble her team, it may take a little longer to roll out her first initiative, but it will be done with a level of full knowledge, research and careful attention to the important data out there on this issue," predicts Anita McBride, who worked in multiple administrations, was former first lady Laura Bush's chief of staff and now studies the legacies of first ladies at American University in Washington.

But her absence has been noticed: Stylish and statuesque, the ex-model stands out when she is present, stimulating further curiosity about her. But she remains largely inscrutable; unlike her polished stepdaughter, businesswoman-turned-White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, Melania has not done media interviews about her plans.

Does it matter that Trump has been a slow-starting FLOTUS?

Every new first lady takes a different approach, says McBride, and it's nothing to worry about. "We may have to get used to, with this new first lady, she's not going to do it the way her predecessors did it; she's going to do it the way it fits her best. That may be more limited but it will be just as impactful."

First-lady expert Kate Andersen

Brower,

author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,

says she's sympathetic to the notion that Trump needs more time to understand the job. "While they get a honeymoon period, I think that's quickly coming to an end," Andersen Brower says.

Gutin suspects most people don't care, but she thinks Trump is missing an opportunity.

"The tradition is that the presidential spouse gives us some insight into the character of the president, and certainly since Jacqueline Kennedy those of us who care about it have always thought the first lady can use (the White House audience) to do a lot of good," Gutin says. "Does it matter to the success of an administration? Probably not. But there is the opportunity there and she's not taking advantage of it."

Or not yet, anyway.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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