As the documentary film "Bully" brings heightened attention to harassment in schools, the Walt Disney Co. and a nonprofit advocacy group for children are turning to TV and the Internet to tackle the related issue of cyberbullying.
Common Sense Media and Disney have created a series of public service announcements in which young Disney Channel and Disney XD actors talk about the problem of cyberbullying. The segments, produced as part of Disney's Friends for Change initiative, began appearing this week on both networks, as well as online.
Nearly one in three children say they have been the target of some form of online harassment, including having their private texts or email messages forwarded without permission, receiving threatening messages or having someone post an embarrassing picture of them online, according to a 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project report on cyberbullying.
One in four teens say they received harassing voice or text messages on their cellphones, Pew found.
The problem is most prevalent for children in their mid-teens (ages 14 to 17). Technology gives schoolyard taunts a new, more troubling dimension because of the speed, breadth and permanence of the painful remarks, Pew reported.
That's why Common Sense Media sought out Disney Channel and Disney XD — with its young audience of viewers, ages 6 to 14 — as a platform to confront the issue, as well as its "tween" stars to offer tips for dealing with the problem.
"Today's kids connect, create and collaborate through media. But it's extremely important for them to understand the implications of their online actions," James Steyer, chief executive and founder of Common Sense Media, said in a statement. "This campaign will help empower kids to think critically about how they interact with others in their online and mobile lives and help them be smart and respectful digital citizens."
Billy Unger, the 16-year-old actor who portrays the superhuman teen character "Chase" on the Disney XD series "Lab Rats," talked about being the victim of bullying when he was in fourth grade — and how he sought the help of a teacher to stop painful taunts about his height.
Unger said he endured two years of being ridiculed every day, tormented and called "small-fry" and other hurtful insults because he was a few inches shorter than his peers. "It was pretty heartbreaking," he said.
The teen actor said he welcomed the opportunity to tell kids that "they don't need to stand there and take this beatdown every day," that they can "stand up without lashing out or fighting back" by seeking help.
"If you're sitting there and you can't come up for air, the best thing to do is to tell someone," Unger said in an interview with The Times. "If you can't do anything about it yourself, find someone who can help you. If it's not your parents, tell your teacher."
— Dawn C. Chmielewski
Photo of Billy Unger, 16-year-old who stars as the super-human Chase, the youngest of three bionic teen siblings, who tries to navigate a "normal" world of school, friends and family, in the Disney XD live-action comedy series "Lab Rats." Credit: Todd Wawrychuk for Disney XD.