SITTING down with two Queensland high school students, Ian Thorpe couldn't believe what other teenagers were saying to them online and via text messages.
From slurs to messages urging them to harm or kill themselves, the examples of bullying are confronting. And they're just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the students' daily experiences at school.
"It was vile," Thorpe tells The Guide.
"Because we (adults) didn't have the emphasis of online when we were younger, it's easy to go 'it must be the cyber bullying causing all the problems now' but it's just another avenue for bullying."
The swimming champion hosts the ABC's new two-part documentary series Bullied.
Filmed in Queensland, the series offers a controversial and compelling insight into the issue of school bullying.
"I haven't been bullied in a way that's similar to these kids; I wanted to be their champion and to give them their voices," Thorpe tells The Guide.
"I've had some experiences that were a bit of bullying but I'm an adult and those things change significantly when you move out of that period of being an adolescent.
"I've had a number of people who have opened up to me. Friends or people who know I've been filming have shared a story about them or their children or a close friend being bullied.
"We all have a responsibility at a community level to get this right."
More than a quarter of Australian school students claim to be bullied on a regular basis according to research cited by a joint Federal/State Governments anti-bullying program.
Each episode of Bullied will chart the experience of an individual - along with their family - who is being bullied at school, and is seeking external help. Using hidden cameras, they record their daily torment.
The footage is shown not only to their families but also some of their classmates in a group session led by specialist child psychologist Marilyn Campbell of QUT.
"We had children who were incredibly brave to have filmed their bullying as it happened," Thorpe says. "Their families know the bullying is going on but they've never seen it. The first time they watch what their children go through it's tough."
Thorpe and the filmmakers are not out to point the finger at any one person, so the identities of bullies and bystanders are obscured.
It is estimated that peers are present as onlookers in 87% of bullying interactions, and the way they respond plays a central role in the bullying process.
"Most people experience bullying as a bystander," Thorpe says. "They don't know what to say, and they feel the guilt and remorse for not saying anything afterwards. We're trying to give those people the tools to be able to do something."
Despite the best efforts of educators, bullying is an ongoing problem.
"I must insist schools are trying hard," Thorpe says. "At the moment we have a very traditional model that is an adult solution to a problem happening to young people. I think it would be better if young people can come up with the solutions.
"What we want to do with this program is be the catalyst for change at these schools. We can't be there all the time. It's important for schools to take ownership and for the kids to shape their own schools."
Bullied premieres on Tuesday at 8.30pm on ABC1.
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