News and Articles

Sit With Us: Mobile Apps for Fostering Student Unity

November 9, 2016

“The first step to a warmer, more inclusive community can begin with lunch.” – Natalie Hampton, Founder of Sit With Us

As was explored in a recent article, Put Down That Phone – it’s time to reconnect, digital technology can often be considered a negative influence on relationships – it can isolate us from actually connecting with each other. As human beings, we need personal interactions, not exclusive digital networking. Yet, sometimes, digital technology provides a way for us to find each other and truly connect; a portal for which we can locate, socialize and stand together – all with the tap of a smartphone screen.

Natalie Hampton, a 16-year-old from Sherman Oaks, California, is the brains behind the mobile app Sit With Us. The idea is to help students find places to sit at lunch so they don’t have to eat alone – a situation that Natalie herself found “embarrassing.” The app allows users to coordinate lunch with friends, post featured lunches that others can join, and add lunch events. As the app’s site maintains, “The first step to a warmer, more inclusive community can begin with lunch.”

Natalie sat down with NPR host Audie Cornish to explain why the idea for the app came to her: she was bullied at school and often ate lunch alone.

“When you walk into the lunchroom and you see all the tables of everyone sitting there and you know that going up to them would only end in rejection, you feel extremely alone and extremely isolated, and your stomach drops. And you are searching for a place to eat, but you know that if you sit by yourself, there’ll be so much embarrassment that comes with it because people will know and they’ll see you as the girl who has nowhere to sit.”

Inviting students to become “ambassadors” of their school, the app has a sign-up feature where said students take a pledge that they will be welcoming to others, and students looking for a spot to eat lunch can locate an ambassador table and join it. It’s simple digital networking with a truly wonderful result that Natalie has happily shared: “people are already posting open lunches at my school.”

The problem of bullying, cyberbullying and social isolation is well known, but the biggest issue, according to Jaana Juvoven – professor of developmental pyschology at the University of California, Los Angeles – is that a lot of kids keep it to themselves. Many bullied kids and teens do not report their abuse because they feel they “need to learn to deal with it” or they are worried their parents may restrict internet access.

Mobile apps are a way to not only foster inclusive behaviour and student connection, but are also beneficial when it comes reporting bullying – anonymously. Todd Schobel launched the mobile app Stop!t after hearing the story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who committed suicide after posting a YouTube video about being bullied. Schobel’s app design gives both victims and bystanders an opportunity to report bullying without identifying of the reporter.

With the onset of cyberbullying in the digital age, schools are simply not able to intervene the way they used to – a lot of bullying now happens after school hours and off the premises. The uniqueness of the Stop!it app is that ensures the school is aware of what is happening to their students, both in the classroom and at home. Schools actually purchase the app for each student and pre-program a list of administrators who can access the app’s bullying reports.

When a student downloads the app, they “enter their school’s unique identification code, and when an instance of cyberbullying occurs, they can take a screenshot of the interaction and anonymously send it to the administrative team.” The success of the app is apparent, with one New Jersey school finding a 75% decrease in bullying reports after adopting the technology. Parents, educators and students can now think of smartphones as more than just a portal to Candy Crush and Instagram. Mobile apps like Sit With Us and Stop!t work to build trust and community in the face of bullying and social isolation. As digital technology advances, so too will creative solutions for uniting youth and fostering social connectedness. And with that, apps can produce more than likes and filters; they can generate hope.