Hype over a television show, particularly one with a riveting storyline, may seem like nothing out of the ordinary. Though I am showing my age, I recall the drama at school when everyone burst in that morning after J.R. Ewing had been shot. My graduate school classmates analyzed and overanalyzed the characters from Melrose Place. However, the impact of social media has presented a vehicle for this type of chatter unlike any other, and suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about 13 Reasons Why, a harrowing teen drama that tackles sexual assault, bullying, drug use, and suicide. Even some of my daughter’s 12-year-old friends are clamoring about it (and of course prompting an indignant response from her when she is denied access). One social media research group reported there were more tweets about this show during its first week than any of the other wildly popular shows on Netflix (Demaria, 2017). This begs the question: if all our kids are talking about this series, then shouldn’t we be talking about it with them?
The gist of the controversy
Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher, the show chronicles the struggles of 17-year-old Hannah Baker, whose character narrates the show posthumously. Before ending her life, Hannah records and leaves a trail of tapes, providing explicit details about how a number of her peers contributed to her death. The series has been both lauded as an opportunity for important discussions with teens, and criticized as potentially doing more harm than good by suicide experts.
Suicide experts caution in particular about the overly graphic portrayal of Hannah’s suicide. Research shows that when suicides are sensationalized with graphic details, this may increase the risk of suicide for vulnerable individuals exposed to those details (Suicide Prevention Resource Center, 2011). Concerns also center on the show’s lack of hopeful alternatives. Most, if not all, of the parents in the series are only peripherally involved in the lives of their teens, and are fairly oblivious to their struggles. None of the characters confide in parents or any other potentially helpful adult until the end of the season, despite the seriousness of the circumstances they are attempting to navigate. The only “help” available to Hannah is apparently an incompetent school counselor, whose distracted and dismissive approach is the last straw for the already desperate teen. For vulnerable viewers, the message may be that options are nonexistent, and help, unavailable.
Hannah’s social status skyrockets with her death; she morphs from outcast center of hateful rumors to suddenly having her locker memorialized with tokens of “friendship.” Her tormenters become guilt-ridden, and the boy she has a crush on acknowledges that he loved her. The degree of control Hannah wields over her peers after her death is tremendous, since they feel compelled to follow her instructions or risk having their secrets exposed. Experts caution that such portrayals may leave vulnerable viewers with the sense that suicide poses a status-bolstering or vengeful solution to interpersonal problems or bullying.
More cause for concern…
13 Reasons Why handles other important issues in an equally concerning manner. Girls are frequently depicted as disempowered, subject to the sexual desires of their male peers, with no recourse. Silence and passive acceptance of victimization of women are par for the course in Hannah’s town, or so it would appear. Even when the main character dares to disclose her recent history of being raped, she is given a choice between a bleak prospect of successfully charging her attacker, or “moving on.”
Despite these concerns, many individuals counter-argue that 13 Reasons Why brings the issues confronted by today’s teens to the forefront. So what’s a concerned parent, agency supervisor, educator, mental health professional, or individual working with teens in another capacity to do?
The responsible response
Here are some recommendations to consider and to promote helpful conversations about the content of the series.
- Know the maturity level of the proposed audience, and the adult themes that are the focus of the show. Many kids are watching the show without any adult guidance or awareness of the show’s actual content. Be aware that the intensity level and maturity of themes increases as the season progresses.
- If you decide to let your child watch the show, watch it with them, and use it as an opportunity to delve into discussions with them about their reactions, concerns, and questions. Use it as an opportunity to discuss not only suicide, but also sexual violence, drug and alcohol use, bullying, and mental illness.
- If you decide not to let your child watch, talk to them about what they are hearing from their peer group, correct any misconceptions, and address concerns and questions.
- Emphasize that suicide is not a solution to problems, and that help is available. Talk with teens about what they should do or say to a friend who shares suicidal thoughts or who demonstrates warning signs. Teach them what resources exist and how to access them. Explain the importance of refusing to keep a secret when a friend discloses that they are potentially suicidal.
- If you work with children and families in a professional capacity, or you supervise those who do, be aware that this series may come up in discussions with clients or your supervisees. Provide accurate information about suicide prevention, and address the issues in a research-informed manner. Provide your direct reports with the training they need to responsibly address the issues involved, and to ensure they know how to effectively screen potentially suicidal individuals.
I will fully admit that I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why in its entirety, and I will no doubt watch season 2 so that I can finally learn what exactly happened to Alex Standall. However, as a psychologist, I found myself concerned about some of the major developments in the show, particularly with how these might affect younger or vulnerable viewers. Research has informed a series of recommendations for how the media should responsibly report suicide deaths (Reporting on Suicide, 2015). The reality is, 13 Reasons Why, neglected many of those crucial guidelines. Educate yourself about suicide prevention by reviewing some of the attached resources. Preview the series in its entirety yourself first. And then weighing that information against the potentially beneficial conversations and your child’s maturity level, decide what’s right for your child. For myself, the controversy surrounding the show has created meaningful opportunities for tween-appropriate conversations about suicide prevention, but it looks like my daughter will just have to deal with streaming Master Chef Junior for a few more years.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
To access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where confidential support is available for people experiencing a suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days, call 1-800-273-8255. Information for concerned loved ones, as well as best practices for providers, can also be accessed through that number.
Suicide Prevention Resources
13 Reasons Why Talking Points