Thirteen Reasons Why Netflix

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Q: My daughter is 13 and an eighth grader in middle school. Her friends have recently become obsessed with the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why. I haven’t read the book or watched the show, but have been seeing a few news articles that worry that the show may be dangerous for kids to watch graphic depictions of suicide, bullying and forced sex. My daughter feels that it is only “drama” (in the teen use of the word), and she’s been feeling left out of the conversation with her friends. Is it ok for me to let her watch it?

~ Just One Reason Why Not, USA

A: Dear Just,

Your question is timely. Many parents (and educators, judging from the flurry of school-parent communication around the country) have been concerned about the content of 13 Reasons Why and its massive popularity among pre-teens and teens. It is currently the most popular Netflix show on social media, in part because it is being heavily marketed to adolescents, with a personal social media campaign from Executive Producer and powerful teen influencer, Selena Gomez. The show’s subject matter is titllating because it is, as your daughter says “teen drama”. The problem is that she and her peers may not yet be neurodevelopmentally capable of processing that “drama” in healthy, safe ways.

Although it is based on a popular YA novel (for readers 12-18), 13 Reasons Why is rated TV-MA (unsuitable for viewers under 17) and several episodes are preceded by an onscreen “graphic content” warning. As you’ve seen with your own daughter, media made for older adolescents and adults are attractive to younger kids. Younger kids’ media consumption is aspirational, meaning that they look to older kids, including media representations, to see how they should act, dress, and behave in the strange new worlds of high school, summer camp, and college. There is a real difference between your 13-year-old daughter reading the book and watching an adult filmmaker’s graphic recreation of the book. And selling an admittedly TV-MA show to a YA readership is just as concerning as cross-marketing children’s action figures based on R-rated movies like Deadpool.

Because of the normal stage of development at age 13, the decision whether and how your daughter should watch 13 Reasons Why is an important one. The intense emotions, confusion, and behaviors of the show’s characters can be disturbing to any viewer. But younger viewers, who are looking for clues on how to be a teenager and have limited life experience to reference, are especially vulnerable to being upset and activated. As her parent, you know best what your daughter can and cannot handle when it comes to seeing emotionally intense content created by adults whose life experience and brain development provide them perspective and resilience that a 13-year-old does not yet have. If you feel that your daughter isn’t ready to process graphic images of substance abuse, suicide, rape, and physical assault in a healthy and safe way, 13 Reasons Why is not for her.

More concerning than its graphic visuals is the show’s narrative and how it may be interpreted by young viewers. This is in part because children and teens will not develop brain executive functions such as impulse control and future thinking for more than a decade. Because the plot of 13 Reasons Why revolves around suicide and many of the characters grapple with suicidal thoughts and hurting themselves, this may be interpreted by young viewers as normal adolescent behavior. While teen suicide is the second leading cause of adolescent death in this country,  it is fortunately a relatively rare occurrence, and far from “normal” teen behavior. From an adult sensibility, it has been argued that 13 Reasons Why provides an opportunity to bring hush hush subjects like teen suicide, substance use, and rape out into the open. Unfortunately, while the premise and title of 13 Reasons Why claim that it presents the reasons why the main character, Hannah, takes her life, the show neglects the primary reason for her suicide, which is Hannah’s mental health at a time when she has not fully developed impulse control, proving to be a deadly combination.

Suicide primarily results from depression, the most common, and commonly missed, chronic illness. Despite the story presented by 13 Reasons Why, suicide is not a reaction to (or revenge for) what others do to or do not do for someone like Hannah, but arises from depression, her sense of hopelessness and helplessness to make life better. This is the fundamental reality of suicide that is, unfortunately, never addressed in the show. 13 Reasons Why sends a harsh and untrue message that Hannah’s classmates actually cause her death. In the show’s final episodes, the teens note again and again that they killed Hannah. Particularly unnerving is Hannah’s final reason why – she sought help from the school counselor and received none.

13 Reasons Why concludes with the main protagonist’s realization that a “change” in terms of how he and his peers treat each other is needed – but specific changes are never mentioned. This missed opportunity to describe how depression feels and how it looks to others is the show’s greatest failure. Not only could it have opened the meaningful discussion of teen suicide that the producers sought, but it would have given viewers the tools to recognize depression, support and care for their friends, and seek care for themselves when they need it.

Every young person and viewer is going to respond to 13 Reasons Why differently. If you are going to allow your daughter to watch it, discuss some of the themes beforehand. Ask her why she wants to watch the show and what her friends have been saying about it. Then sit down and watch the show together. Help her to process it by discussing ways Hannah could have reached out to her friends, her parents, and her teachers – and the different outcomes that might have resulted had she done so. Think together about what Hannah’s friends could have noticed, what they might have done had they known about her depression, and to whom they might have reached out. Explicitly note that the school counselor is not an accurate portrayal of a responsible mental health professional. Make sure your daughter knows that you are there for her, and that others are there for her as well. Identify the people in your daughter’s life to whom she can turn when she feels sad, lonely, or helpless. Finally, recognize that 13 Reasons Why is a work of fiction, made more compelling by suggesting you could wreak revenge on peers who have bullied you or that the boy or girl you had a crush on will pine for you and avenge your death. But these are emotionally manipulative and unrealistic clichés of entertainment that glamorize and romanticize “teen drama.” There is no glamor or romance in the tragedy of a child taking her own life. None.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician®

 

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6 Responses to “Should I let my child watch the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why?”

  1. Laura Forest

    Thank you for the thoughtful response to this question. My own daughter, age 17, let her dad and I in on the fact that “everyone” at school was watching the series and she had already watched it. We watched it so we could have a discussion with her about what seemed to be sensationalizing suicide. I am now routinely asking my patients who are teenagers specifically about if they have seen (many have) and get them and parents involved in some discussion about suicide.
    I am a PA in a pediatric practice.

    Reply
  2. Tilly

    I have to respectfully disagree. First of all let’s look at the directors, actors and author’s intentions.

    The person who wrote this book, Jay Asher, clearly stated his purpose of writing the book – it was to raise awareness about how your actions affect others. The author, who has been depressed before, wanted to give a reflection of what it was like to be depressed and have suicidal thoughts.

    If you have watched the show or have read the book at all, there was no glamorizing or romanticizing the act of suicide whatsoever. If anything, it was honest about how one can feel when bullied (how every small problem can pile up and create something huge) and the aftermath of suicide – how your friends and family feel after suicide. It didn’t normalize suicidal thoughts but rather, it told the story of how one must be treated to be in such a state of hopelessness.

    The woman who brought this show to Netflix, Selena Gomez, along with the talented crew of actors, made a Behind the Scenes video to address the issue met in the show. She clearly stated that the show was trying to convey the true feelings of someone depressed. Not only was this show aimed at people who have suicidal thoughts, it is aimed at everyone. It encourages kindness, as Selena Gomez is famous for doing. It shows how even seemingly trivial things you do to someone can accumulate and give them that final push to their limits. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from young adults was that it made them a better person. I know it made me a better person.

    Here’s an example. I have a guy friend who constantly makes degrading, objectifying comments about girls’ bodies. After he watched the show, particularly the scene where a guy grabs Hannah’s butt and she walks away crying, really clicked something in him. He stopped making any rude comments after that. He’s definitely not the only one where the show has had this effect. Basically, every single action that happened to Hannah really puts into perspective how everyday actions can affect someone. After the show, I have never once done something to someone without thinking twice whether it will have the same effect on them as Hannah.

    For me, the show conveyed suicide truthfully yet respectfully. It brings the harsh and definitely not ‘cool’ reality of taking your own life and how helpless and undeserving of love you must feel to take your own life. Not only this, but the show encouraged bystanders to reach out to people who appear suicidal. It depicted Clay – the main character – regretting Hannah and how easily preventable that suicide could’ve been had Clay done something about it. It told the telltale signs of suicide and even had a suicide prevention number!

    The show doesn’t want to blame or justify suicide like this article’s author said: it was telling the story of how action by action, one can feel so hopeless. If anything, it wanted to prevent suicide by showing the audience how to recognize and reach out to potential victims of suicide. It shows the dark and regretful aftermath of suicide (the mom, dad, mourning friends, etc).

    Essentially, I just believe that it brings across this frequently stigmatized topic. Furthermore, it encourages people to be kind and look out for each other. Suicide prevention lines reported that calls for help significantly increased after the debut of this show! The phrase KYS (kill yourself) used on the Internet decreased after its debut! The show and book are doing a lot of good. It’s so easy for people, particularly adults and parents, to judge this show without having watched it from a teen’s point of view because it’s so honest about high school. From all the teens I’ve talked to (a lot, by the way), I’ve only ever heard positive feedback that it’s made them a kinder, more mindful person or gave them the courage to speak up should they be bullied or witness bullying. Please read TeenVogue and BuzzFeed for many teenager’s perspective on this topic – I assure you it’s wildly different from the adults’.

    Writing an article to discourage viewing this show is dangerous. This show might be the only thing that could convince a suicidal viewer to reach out. It’s not about drama – it’s about raising awareness. They wrote a clear essay about their intentions, they made a video about how each topic should be dealt with and even included a suicide prevention number – they’re very clearly discouraging suicide: very much the opposite of what this article suggested.

    Reply
    • Jane

      I agree with both you and the author of this article. I have two teenage daughters who have had feelings of depression, hopelessness and of not belonging. We read this book a few years ago and what I really wanted to make clear to them is (like the author says” 1. No one causes suicide except the person that takes their own life. That’s the cold hard truth. and 2. You don’t get to “attend your own funeral” or see people be sorry for their actions once you commit suicide. You are done. The End.
      I think allowing your teens to watch this show is like any other show, the OA, Pretty Little Liars, Glee – whatever…the world of social media is there, not going anyplace…teens must understand that recklessness has consequences. TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN. Keep talking. Talk some more…..

      Reply
  3. Sky Letterman

    Alright, the question is already ridiculous. “Should I let my child…” SHOULD I LET! How how about let your child make their own decisions? This sort of parenting is over-controlling.

    Anyway, this article was terrible. Why? The author clearly:
    a) hasn’t watched the show or read the book
    b) doesn’t know what it’s like to be a teenager

    Do you have any idea what it’s like to be in high school? This show is not about drama or making suicide seem cool or whatever, it’s doing teens all over the world a huge favor – bringing out a stigmatized topic to light. This show is a holy grail; it is a savior for so many teens because it saves lives. I have read stories all over the Internet where someone considering suicide has watched this and decided to reach out or someone who is previously unkind has a change of heart. It’s making the world a better place! How could you turn down something like this?

    Telling parents to stop their child from watching this and stopping children from discussing this is only adding to the stigma. It is the REASON why suicide is such a big, unaddressed problem and claiming so many lives. Instead of using this show as the chance to address suicide, people are shutting it down? I’m so done with all the negativity against this show. It’s only coming from the adults – I haven’t met a single teen who wants to commit suicide because of this show or a single teen or has said that “this show glamorizes suicide” blah blah blah. Literally every teen who has ever watched it has learned something great out of it. The only criticism is coming out of these pesky adults who shouldn’t even be sticking their noses into anyone’s business.

    PLUS, they made a massive trigger warning on each episode, they created a video to explain their intentions and experiences of suicide, they gave the phone number of the suicide prevention line and even dedicated a WHOLE SITE to the problem of suicide, how to recognize it, how to get help, etc. How could y’all still be having problems that this show is making suicide seem OK or whatever? It’s honestly beyond me.

    Reply
  4. Ashlee

    As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I have at least one patient almost every shift with suicidal ideation. Albeit, some are minor gestures while others are rather determined (such as my patient who blew his face off, or the teen last week who sent her parent to the store, then hung herself). I talk with those that are able, but others are either intubated and can’t speak or die in my emergency department. I can tell you since the show, I have personally cared for 15-20 patients who have said this show has given them the ‘courage ‘ to commit there suicide attempt (remember some attempts are more gestures). So to the the perso who commented that they have never met a teen who wants to commit suicide because of this show, obviously the show alone is not the reason, but I have met teens who now have ‘courage’ because of the show.

    I am not saying teens should not watch the show, but I think a good diagulue needs to happen along with just watching. Depression and suicide are not talked about enough a and unfortunately there is a stigma around depression which I aim to normalize with my patients and families. But, I would hesitant before letting a truly depressed or suicidal teen watch it.

    Just my opinion from my professional experience. Agree or disagree, I just throwing it out there.

    Reply

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