13 Reasons Why – A Clinical Perspective on Media Responsibility
This is part two of a three-part series offering a clinical perspective on the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why (originally published on May 4, 2017).
Part 2: Media Responsibility
Although 13 Reasons Why is rated TV-MA in the US, the amount of publicity the show has received has served to draw in increasingly larger youthful audiences. For many adults, trying to stop younger children from watching 13 Reasons Why is like stopping a train after it’s left the station – the show is available on electronic devices, and parents who use parental controls at home can’t necessarily stop what happens with their children’s friends. Nonetheless, it’s important for youth and adults to note the MA-17 rating and treat it with respect. Most children under 17 should not watch this show, or should only watch it in the company of a trusted adult. Reading online reviews, it’s clear very young adolescents are watching 13 Reasons Why, and parents and educators should be aware of this.
Media guidelines exist for the portrayal of suicide, and 13 Reasons Why breaks most of them. In particular, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) notes that the “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.” The AFSP recommends instead portrayals that do not romanticize suicide, avoid explicit images, and that offer alternative resources. Considering how likely it is that at-risk youth will watch this show, it is shocking and disturbing that the show is not paired with information about suicide prevention and crisis hotlines, and in fact that when these resources are mentioned in the show, they are treated as though they are ineffective. The central story line itself is problematic, in that it implicitly suggests that Hannah had no choice but to kill herself as the result of the cruelty and indifference of those around her. While 13 Reasons Why does show that people around Hannah try to connect with her only to be pushed away, ultimately it makes a compelling case for Hannah’s belief that she has no other choice, which can be particularly dangerous for youth who identify with these very attractive, charismatic characters.
It’s important for parents, educators, and counselors who work with older children and young adolescents to ask if they have heard of this show or seen it. Whether they have seen it already or are curious about viewing it, it’s important to take time to talk about the issues the show raises in detail, and encourage children to talk about their thoughts, reactions, and – when relevant – their personal experiences in facing the issues raised in the series.
13 Reasons Why in many ways is a very well-written show, with accurate and moving portrayals of bullying, rape, alcohol and drug abuse, drunk driving, and gun violence. Many children need to have conversations about these issues with their parents, but it would be problematic for those children and adolescents who haven’t already been exposed to these issues to encounter them for the first time through watching this show. The series does succeed in creating complex, layered characters, but the degree to which these characters are relatable in many ways compounds the problem. Young viewers may not consider challenging the show’s assumption that reaching out to adults, friends, or school counselors for support is pointless, as Hannah’s effort to connect with others (such as her school counselor) is portrayed in the series. Similarly, young viewers may truly believe that Hannah’s suicide was “successful,” in that it led others to feel remorse after her death. Children and parents should be aware that the show is disturbing to watch due to its graphic content, and that it presents a response to adversity and trauma that is neither adaptive nor typical, and there should be discussions and education provided to young viewers about their other options for dealing with painful feelings and experiences.