‘Sit With Us’ app can turn the tide

Bul­ly­ing on so­cial me­dia made news in Cape Town this week. But bul­ly­ing is a prob­lem across the world. And young peo­ple them­selves hold the key to end­ing bul­ly­ing. A US teen is show­ing the way, writes COLBY ITKOWITZ

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON: Natalie Hamp­ton spent most of her Grade 7 and 8 school years eat­ing lunch alone at break. The new girl at an all-girl pri­vate school in Los An­ge­les, she be­came the tar­get of a clique of “mean girls” who ex­cluded her from par­ties, called her names and even phys­i­cally as­saulted her, she says.

They told her she was ugly and would never have any friends. They shoved her in a locker, scratched her and even threat­ened to kill her.

She feared telling on them, afraid of their re­tal­i­a­tion. Once a kid who loved go­ing to school, Natalie now dreaded it. She stopped eat­ing, she couldn’t sleep.

The anx­i­ety be­came so bad that she had to be hos­pi­talised. Her mom, Carolyn, calls it “the dark­est pe­riod of our lives”.

Natalie switched schools for high school. Now a 16-yearold, she’s happy there, with a group of close friends and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

But she’s never for­got­ten those two dark years when she was bul­lied and iso­lated by her peers. And she hates the idea of other kids go­ing through what she did.

So Natalie came up with an idea that would al­low stu­dents a judge­ment-free way to find lunch mates with­out the fear of be­ing re­jected.

She de­vel­oped an app called “Sit With Us”, where stu­dents can sign up as “am­bas­sadors” and post that there are open seats at their lunch ta­ble. A stu­dent who doesn’t have a place to sit can look at the app and find an am­bas­sador’s ta­ble and know they are in­vited to join it.

When sign­ing up as an am­bas­sador, the stu­dent takes a pledge that they’ll be kind and wel­com­ing to who­ever comes to sit with them.

“Lunch might seem re­ally small, but I think these are the small steps that make a school more in­clu­sive,” Natalie said. “It doesn’t seem like you’re ask­ing that much, but once you get peo­ple in the mind­set, it starts to change the way stu­dents think about each other. It makes a huge dif­fer­ence in how they treat each other.” There is re­search that backs that up. In Jan­uary, pro­fes­sors from sev­eral US uni­ver­si­ties found that when stu­dents ac­tively take a stand against bul­ly­ing, and not teach­ers or ad­min­is­tra­tors, it’s more ef­fec­tive.

They did so by test­ing what would hap­pen if a ran­dom group of stu­dents started ac­tively pro­mot­ing an­tibul­ly­ing cam­paigns at their schools. In the par­tic­i­pat­ing schools, they saw a “30 per­cent re­duc­tion in dis­ci­plinary re­ports”. One statis­tic shows that one in four US stu­dents say they’ve been bul­lied in a given school year and 64 per­cent of them don’t re­port it.

The once-bul­lied Natalie, who is ac­tive in theatre and dance and com­mu­nity ser­vice and as­pires to study psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science at univer­sity, in­tro­duced her app on Mon­day at an assem­bly in front of her en­tire school.

She’s been in­ter­viewed on ra­dio and lo­cal tele­vi­sion. She’s been in­vited to at­tend a “Girls Can Do” con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton next month to give a pre­sen­ta­tion about her ex­pe­ri­ence.

She and her mom, Carolyn, have sched­uled mul­ti­ple phone con­ver­sa­tions with aca­demic ad­min­is­tra­tors all over the US about the “Sit With Us” app and how they can im­ple­ment it in their schools.

“It’s nice to see how re­silient she is,” Carolyn said. “It was such a tough pe­riod in our lives and she’s turned it around and is do­ing some­thing re­ally pos­i­tive.”

When Natalie first started in her new high school, she made friends eas­ily – the way she was be­fore mid­dle school, her mom said. Yet even as a new stu­dent, when she saw peers sit­ting alone, she asked them to join her, Natalie said.

Now, many of those kids are “an es­sen­tial part of our friend group”, she said.

“I’m ex­tremely lucky I got the chance to get out and share my story with other peo­ple,” she said. – Wash­ing­ton Post

PIC­TURE: CAROLYN HAMP­TON

Natalie Hamp­ton holds her phone show­ing her ‘Sit With Us’ app.

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