On April 5, 2009, 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover hanged himself after enduring constant bullying at school, despite his mother’s weekly pleas to the school to address the problem. It was the fourth suicide of a middle-school aged child linked to bullying that year. That same spring, Cartoon Network’s audience research with young people 6-14 found that of all the concerns kids had—concerns including parents who were out of work and worries about wars Americans were fighting overseas—bullying was one that stood out. It was highlighted by the majority of kids not because they were being bullied, but because they’d watched friends get bullied and had done nothing to stop it. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; rather, they told us they were afraid and that they didn’t know what to do.
CN’s Stop Bullying: Speak Up emerged from our audience’s need for useful information, specific actions to take, and the desire to protect their friends.
Cartoon Network is a youth entertainment brand. While news and information experts at CNN, Headline News and CNN Student News are corporate partners, our work is providing our audiences with humor, adventure and drama that broadens their horizons and takes them out of their everyday lives. This project offered an opportunity to use our entertainment skills to provide information our audience asked for and needed. Following a proven model (thank you Joan Ganz Cooney!), we asked experts for subject matter advice; researched creative approaches with key target audiences; and went to the best of our comedy writers to spin academic straw into entertainment gold.
Kids told us they didn’t want to see celebrities or superheroes teach them these skills, that just didn’t feel real; they wanted to see kids who looked like they might actually get bullied. And they were really clear about the fact that they wanted us to show them what to do, not just tell them. CJ, Jackson and Ali—the slacker-esque stars of CN’s then-new series Dude, What Would Happen—fit the bill perfectly. With scripts that had them not just messaging, but modeling behaviors kids could safely emulate; and a digital platform that let players spread the word that bullying wasn’t cool and that there were ways you could safely step in and not become the next victim, CN’s Stop Bullying: Speak Up launched in October 2010 using the best properties of entertainment media to inform, educate and empower a generation.
Alice Cahn is Cartoon Network’s VP for Social Responsibility, directing content and the implementation of outreach and pro-social initiatives across all of the Cartoon Network divisions. Prior to joining Cartoon Network, Cahn served as Managing Director of the Markle Foundation’s Interactive Media for Children Program. Cahn came to Markle from Sesame Workshop where she served as President of the Television, Film and Video group. From 1993-1998 Cahn was head of children’s programming for PBS.