Warning over TV series aimed at teens
by Jenny Schweyer
Dozens of school districts across Canada (including BC) sent out warning notices in May to parents regarding the explosive new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Although many of these school districts have not consulted with one another, the warnings have had eerily similar undertones and language. All have urged parents to exercise caution when it comes to allowing their children to watch the show.
13 Reasons Why is the story of a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who documents on tape 13 reasons (each representing a specific person) why she is committing suicide. Two weeks later, the tapes find their way to one of her friends, who listens to each one. Each episode of the series depicts one of the 13 reasons. The tapes are gut-wrenching and explicit. Throughout the series, viewers witness graphic acts of bullying, sexual encounters, alcohol abuse and violence. The season culminates with the 13th episode, which depicts in full detail Hannah’s gruesome death.
There is little left to the imagination with 13 Reasons Why. It is this highly graphic content along with the creator’s and writer’s mastery at weaving a dramatic, emotional story that plays to the darkest, deepest core fears and anxieties of the viewer. Of course, adults have the ability to separate themselves from the emotional manipulation, even adults who have had similar experiences as Hannah during their own teenage years.
Teenagers, by-and-large, have not yet fully developed that ability. Many are only just beginning to scratch the surface of their own identities. They lack life experience to judge the significance of a situation as it relates to their lives as a whole. As such, a series like 13 Reasons Why, which attempts to shed light on the immense pressures and difficult issues that contemporary youth face, may serve to glamourize and legitimize suicide as a solution in the minds of vulnerable teens, a phenomenon mental health professionals refer to as “suicide contagion.”
Just in case you think your own kids haven’t either watched the show or at least heard about it, consider what Delta, BC professional youth worker Karen Janzen has experienced. “I’ve been asking in Grade 8 classrooms how many have watched it,” she points out. “Two-thirds to three-quarters of the kids put up their hands.” If this number is remotely representative of the general population of teens, it may be safe to assume your kids are already aware of 13 Reasons Why.
This is why school districts all over the country have sought to warn parents who may not understand how explicit the content really is. “It is an accurate portrayal of life as a teenager this decade,” Janzen notes. “Youth like the series because they feel like someone is speaking their truth of experience.” For this reason, it is probably worthwhile for parents to watch. However, professionals agree that forbidding kids from watching the show altogether may backfire, since teens are prone to want to do exactly what they are told not to.
Instead, parents could use the series as a platform for dialogue, suggests Janzen, and other mental health professionals and those who work with teenagers. Indeed, the series is probably not something that young teens should be exposed to. Parents should take the time to explain why and to have a conversation about the issues that plague today’s youth, about mental health in general, and about why suicide is not a solution to a teen’s problems.
Older teens who exhibit a growing sense of maturity may be able to benefit from watching the series, but professionals urge parents to watch with them. Then, they should talk about what they’ve watched. They shouldn’t wait until the end of the series, either. “People are way too traumatized before they get to (the end),” Janzen emphasizes. “Ideally, they should have a debrief the last 10 minutes of every episode.” Christian parents can use the opportunity to talk about faith, morals, the value of human life and the hope that is available through Christ, even in times of despair and perceived hopelessness.