13 Reasons Why

13 Things To Know Before Watching 13 Reasons Why

‘13 Reasons Why’ is a dark Netflix drama series which was originally released in March of 2017 and quickly became one of the most talked about shows of the year.

The first season was dedicated to exploring the individual factors which contributed to a 17-year-old girl’s suicide. This information is presented through a series of audio tapes that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, recorded before taking her own life.

“On the tapes, Hannah unfolds an emotional audio diary, detailing the thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Her instructions are clear: each person who receives the package is one of the reasons why she killed herself. After each person finishes listening to the tapes, they must pass the package on to the next person. If anyone breaks the chain, a separate set of tapes will be released to the public. Each tape is addressed to a select person in her school, and details their involvement in her eventual suicide.” [2]

With Season 2 having premiered recently, parents need to be proactive and take this opportunity to talk to their teens about any questions or concerns that this show may incite. To help, we’ve provided a list of 13 things to know, consider, and talk about with your child if they have watched or want to watch 13 Reasons Why:

1. The graphic content warnings associated with this show should not be taken lightly. The first season contains numerous graphic depictions of sexual assault and rape, and an explicitly graphic suicide scene. This three-minute-sequence does not contain the cliche “moody music swelling to a sad crescendo; there are no quick, artful edits that close up on the razor, the side of the tub, the still-running faucet. Instead, there are only straightforward, unmediated shots of Hannah as she cries out, then breathes heavily until the light gradually drains from her eyes” [3].

2. Due to the show’s major global popularity, there’s a high probability that 13 Reasons Why will be a hot topic of conversation at your child’s school. Therefore, even if your child hasn’t seen the show themselves, there’s a chance that the show and its subject matter matter will be widely talked about in their social circles. Furthermore, to avoid feeling like an outsider, children may feel motivated to watch the show; with or without your permission.

3. If you’re going to let your teen watch the show (or if there’s a probability they’re going to see it/have seen it without your permission) then you need to watch it too. Ideally, you should watch it with them. However, if they’re committed to binging on it with their friends, then be sure to watch it in your own time. Alternatively, you can read the episode descriptions or qualified parental reviews online.

4. Educate yourself about suicide prevention before talking with your children about the contents of the show. Be prepared with facts, suggestions or strategies, and a list of places to access support.

5. Broach the issues with your child. Even if you’re convinced they haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why, take the opportunity to talk about some of the issues that the show covers. This will help to prepare your child for the possibility of hearing their peers discuss it, and it’s also an important conversation to have.

6. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has publicly issued the following warning: “If your child is currently struggling or has had any level of suicidal thoughts or attempts, we recommend not watching the show. People who have experienced a sexual assault may also be triggered by some of the scenes.” [4]

7. While the most widely discussed themes of the show are suicide, bullying, and sexual assault, parents should also be warned that the show depicts a range of other problematic and/or adult themes, including: substance addiction/abuse, underage drinking, swearing, racism, sexism, homophobia, slut-shaming, gun violence [5] and premeditated murder.

8. Mental health experts have condemned the show for glorifying suicide and downplaying death’s permanence. Because Hannah lives on through her audio tapes, the show creates the false and misleading impression that a person who commits suicide can live to witness - and gain comfort from - the devastating aftermath.

9. There’s been a global movement to cancel the show. The Parents Television Council has formally requested for Netflix to pull the series, with the group president issuing the following public statement:

“Netflix has delivered a ticking time bomb to teens and children who watch 13 Reasons Why… We would have liked to have 13 reasons for hope and redemption following the graphic suicide of the lead character, but rather than providing a path forward, the season only provides cause for despondency. (Parents need to be) alert and on guard” [6].

10. While the first season of 13 Reasons Why contains some truly graphic scenes depicting rape and suicide - many viewers have stated that the second season is categorically worse. One scene in particular has caused controversy. 

The scene in question centres around a marginalised and bullied male character named Tyler. Tyler is the first student to testify in the trial over Hannah’s death, and his testimony reveals the true extent and culture of bullying at the school. His candor makes him the target of the school jocks, whom [trigger warning] “eventually corner Tyler in a bathroom, where one athlete proceeds to brutally sodomise him with a broken mop, leaving Tyler both mentally and physically distraught” [7].

11. Part of the reason that this show has had such a contentious reception from its viewers is that there seems to be no consensus as to whether the show’s depiction of adolescent abuse and mental health issues is helpful or harmful.

Caregivers, parents, and childhood mental health experts have been particularly outspoken about the problematic components of the show, specifically referencing concerns about youth exposure to sexually graphic content or gratuitous violence.

These concerns are largely justified. While it’s important to open these subjects up for conversation, there is compelling evidence to suggest that exposure to sexually explicit or graphically violent material during early adolescence can be hugely problematic for young people [8]. This is why we shouldn’t necessarily congratulate shows like 13 Reasons Why for shedding light on issues such as bullying, physical assault, sexual assault, or suicide - especially when teenagers are their target audience.

The show’s creators have stated publicly that they made a conscious choice to make the scenes which depict sexual or physical assault as graphic and confronting as possible, and many people have applauded them for forcing people to see violence and assault for what it is, rather than sugar coating it.

"We're committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can… When we talk about something being 'disgusting' or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it." - Brian Yorkey, Show Creator.

While this may certainly be effective for inciting a level of awareness, empathy, and compassion from blissfully ignorant older viewers, people also need to be mindful that this is a show targeted at young people. And, in the context of adolescent children, it’s less about “sugar coating” or “walking on eggshells” and more about protection.

The reality is that there is little proof to support the notion that alarming and over-exposure to such concepts is the most effective or beneficial way for young people to become educated about them; the development of empathy and a strong moral compass isn’t achieved through fear-mongering. You can’t simply induce it, it needs to be learned, nurtured, and developed over time.  Click here to learn more about how to help young people develop empathy.

12. Suicide being depicted as a solution to a problem and a tool for revenge sets a dangerous precedent, especially for young people experiencing suicidal ideation, severe bullying, or both. While this show is supposedly committed to shedding light on mental health problems that contribute to suicide in young people (which is a major cause of death in Australia). Furthermore, while the show spends a lot of time depicting the horrific cruelty of Hannah’s peers and identifying their callousness as the motivators for her death, little to no time is spent exploring mental health. In fact, Hannah is generally portrayed as being more emotionally stable than many of the other characters.

This can contribute to false and dangerous perceptions of what truly contributes to suicidality; while bullying can be and often is a contributing factor, suicide is almost always attributed to an underlying mental health issue.

“The main failing of this show is that it continues to perpetuate the idea that suicide is a direct result of a person or an event… For years, experts have emphasised that suicide is always a culmination of many causes, and almost always those who suicide have severe mental health issues. Having someone suicide and then make tapes blaming other people for her death makes it seem like suicide is caused by one specific thing.” [9

13. Hannah seeks guidance from the school counsellor after she is raped by a fellow student. When she refuses to name the student, the counsellor tells her that nothing can be done about it if she won’t identify the culprit and that she should just stop living in the past. This complete failure to offer appropriate support and guidance is ultimately what motivates Hannah to go home and commit suicide. Young viewers may take away from this scene that it’s not worth seeking help after experiencing a trauma, which is the exact opposite of what we should be teaching young people.

Not allowing your child to watch this show may be the best decision for their well-being, but entirely avoiding a discussion about the aforementioned topics isn’t. Whether you hate 13 Reasons Why or love it, the fact of the matter is that the show’s producers did ample research when creating the show, and have touched on some very real and ubiquitous struggles that today’s youth are experiencing, and need help with.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, Headspace on 1800 650 890 or visit 13reasonswhy.info.

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