As a mom, psychologist and the author of two books focused specifically on traumatic events in teens, I knew I had to watch “13 Reasons Why,” even though I prefer my non-work activities to be lighthearted and relaxing.
On the off chance you haven’t heard of this controversial and wildly popular Netflix series, it profiles Hannah Baker, a teenager who dies by suicide. In lieu of a suicide note, Hannah leaves a set of 13 audio tapes for her tormentors and bullies, chronicling the reasons that contributed to her suicide.
The series brings up several uncomfortable and taboo topics that parents need to discuss with teens. However, the series, marketed largely to a young adult audience, has left the mental health community with serious concerns.
Overall, I think there are some compelling reasons that parents should watch the series, and many reasons that most teens should not. But let’s face it, many of our kids will insist on watching, maybe they will watch without our permission, or perhaps they have already seen it. That’s an issue we have to deal with too.
Why Parents Should Watch
The series brings up many topics we’d rather not think about, but it gives us a great opportunity to start a dialogue with our teens.
1) The series forces us to discuss sexual violence.
Several characters (Hannah, Jessica) in the series experience sexual assault (which includes unwanted grabbing, touching, fondling and completed intercourse) as well as harassment (for example, demeaning comments about one’s body). One in six women in the U.S. will experience sexual assault during her lifetime, and adolescents and college students are at extremely high risk. We have to discuss the importance of consent, respect, empathy, personal boundaries, and alcohol use with our kids. We have teach our boys that legally and ethically, consent must be given freely, and cannot be given while a girl is under the influence of alcohol.
2) The series highlights that “rape myths,” false or stereotypical beliefs about rape, are still used to blame victims of assault.
Kids need to understand that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted, and that if they see someone who is vulnerable (for example, if they are intoxicated), they need to find safe ways to intervene. Sexual assault is a crime. The key word is “assault,” not “sexual.” Research from all over the globe shows that sexual assault has nothing to do with the length of a girl’s skirt and everything to do with the rapist’s desire for power and control.
3) The series brings up the uncomfortable topic of “slut shaming.”
The girls in the series are often in search of male attention: a boyfriend is seen as “social currency” toward popularity and acceptance. However, girls and boys are quick to label certain girls as sexually “fast” or “easy.” In truth, most American women have 5-6 sexual partners in their lifetime, and the range varies a great deal. We need to teach our kids that decisions about sexuality are personal, based on their own values (and the values of their family), and their personal boundaries, spirituality, and sense of self. We also need to teach our children that other people’s decisions don’t concern them. In the series, shame is a powerful weapon used to bully and demean other people.
4) The series brings up the issue of homophobia.
Although the series includes openly gay characters, it also include a character (Courtney) who is deeply ashamed of her own identity as a lesbian. Interestingly, the fact that she has been raised by two fathers heightens her sense of anxiety and isolation, because she knows firsthand the prejudice her dads have faced. Sadly, Courtney stoops to spreading rumors about Hannah’s sexual history as a way to deflect attention away from her own sexuality. Parents need to be aware that LGBT teens are more vulnerable to bullying, depression, and suicide attempts. Having a culture and family environment where these kids are affirmed and supported is essential to their safety, and mental and physical health.
5) The series challenges parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of substance abuse.
After one of the characters (Jessica) is sexually assaulted, she begins drinking regularly. In one heartbreaking scene, we see that she has bottles of alcohol hidden underneath her bed, in an apparent attempt to numb her feelings and help her to sleep. As parents, we cannot assume that drinking is automatically the result of teenage experimentation or rebellion. Research suggests that substance abuse may be linked to traumatic events in childhood and adolescence. When it comes to substance abuse, it isn’t enough to know what our kids are doing, we also need to understand the reasons why.
6) The series encourages parents to examine how much supervision we are giving our children.
Many characters in the series spend inordinate amounts of time home alone, unsupervised, engaging in sex, and alcohol and marijuana use. It is understandable that kids in high school may need to spend time home alone. However, research suggests that parents who provide structure and high expectations, but also offer warmth and support, have kids who experience fewer mental health and behavioral problems. The series forces parents of teens to consider how we can provide a structured, loving environment for our kids, while still allowing them to take on developmentally-appropriate challenges.
Why Teens Should Skip the Series
7) The series has very little information about the mental health issues Hannah Baker was facing, most notably depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The series could have easily include information on a suicide hotline after each episode (The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 and the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network: 1-800-656-HOPE). Netflix really missed an opportunity to give young viewers some important information after each episode.
8) The series glorifies suicide, even though it doesn’t intend to.
While suicide does indeed deeply affect close friends and family for a lifetime, the series focuses on how people who have “wronged” Hannah must deal with their guilt. In a fictional world, some of these teens feel responsible. In the real world, who knows? Teens who are in an emotionally vulnerable state may think thank others will remain focused on them, and feel bad. Unfortunately, outside of this fictional story, we have no idea if that is true.
9) The series includes several very graphic rape scenes.
Given the prevalence of sexual assault in our culture, this is likely to be highly upsetting for survivors. Part of healing from trauma is learning to manage triggers. If teens (or adults) are survivors a sexual trauma, they may want to avoid this series, or at least plan for how to cope with any feelings that may arise after watching.
10) The series makes it seem like suicide isn’t final.
The way that the story is told—weaving in out of past and present scenes—we almost feel like Hannah is there to see all of her friends and enemies mourning her death. Of course, we know that she isn’t. However, teens that are depressed or struggling with suicidal thoughts are not thinking clearly. We may know that Hannah isn’t really there to know the end of her story. But the way that the series is narrated, that’s hard to remember.
11) The series includes a very graphic scene of Hannah’s suicide.
Although we do not know what predicts “copy cat” or suicide clusters, we do know that adolescents are more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and attempts after someone they know takes their own life. After spending 13 fictional hours with Hannah Baker, it’s hard to think that a vulnerable teen might not see her as someone they can relate to. Let’s hope we don’t see a ripple effect of suicide as a result of this series.
So there are certainly plenty of things parents need to consider and plenty of reasons that teens should not watch the show. But let’s assume many of them are going to anyway. How can we tackle that?
12) We need to watch with our kids and help them process the information.
This isn’t the kind of series that you or your teen should binge watch, ideally. It is better to watch one episode at a time, talk about it, and maybe even plan something fun, healthy, or relaxing to do afterward!
13) If your kids have already watched the series, watch it yourself and ask them for their reactions.
Listen. Ask them what parts are the most realistic. Don’t judge. One of the biggest failures of this series is that it never highlights the importance of trusting, buffering adult relationships. The counselor is described as downright incompetent. (He suggests Hannah should report her rapist or “move on.” Has he ever heard of counseling?) In truth, teens can display incredible amounts of resilience after trauma—and sometimes all it takes is one loving, kind, competent adult to show them the way. Let’s all strive to be that one adult, and perhaps this series will do more good than harm.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 77054 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.