“13 Reasons Why” quickly rose to fame after its March 2017 release. The series tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teenager who took her own life and leaves behind 13 tapes for the people she deemed responsible for her actions. Upon its release, “13 Reasons Why” was praised by some, but heavily criticized by mental health professionals.
Kristen Douglas, a spokesperson for Australian youth mental-health organization Headspace, said while "13 Reasons Why" "is raising a really important issue, it's doing it in a really harmful way."
Professionals warned teens and parents alike to avoid “13 Reasons Why” if they had ever had struggled with depression or suicide ideation. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 10-14, and the second among people ages 15-34 years.
The editor-at-large of Buzzfeed Australia wrote recently that the show’s intentions and outcomes don’t match. While “13 Reasons Why” intends to remind teenagers about the importance of kindness, what it does instead ultimately doesn’t justify the means.
It’s a noble idea, but unfortunately it’s embedded in a show that doesn’t effectively explore mental health and that ultimately uses suicide as the catalyst for a revenge fantasy. Rather than a nuanced exploration of the complex reasons people kill themselves, experts say ‘13 Reasons Why’ presents a rather simplistic blame game, dangerously reinforcing the incorrect idea that suicide is the only way you can truly be heard, or that it can be used as a tool to make those who have hurt you suffer.
This controversy is yet another reminder of that glorifies what is “edgy” rather than what is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable” (Phil. 4:8).
Media matters. Here are 13 reasons why it’s time to consider a Netflix alternative:
1. Role Models Matter
Dr. Nancy Darling explained in Psychology Today that while it is difficult to quantify the exact impact of role models, we do know they play an essential role in our dreams and even decision-making:
“One thing we know is that people don't attempt to achieve something unless they believe it can be done. We know that people are much more likely to attempt to do things if they've seen that someone like them can do it.”
This impact can be either positive or negative, and role models may come from relationships or from media. That’s why characters like Rachel Joy Scott are so important for teenagers.
2. The “Copycat” Effect
Statistical analysis has demonstrated that when a murder, suicide, or other tragedy receives wide media attention, similar events increase in frequency. Loren Coleman calls it the “copycat effect,” and wrote a book to explain the phenomenon in 2004. The normalization of violence may serve to desensitize viewers and even trigger copycats.
Psychologists have specifically warned about “13 Reasons Why” triggering copycat suicides, and other shows riddled with drugs, underage drinking, and other mature themes may accomplish the same effect.
3. Teens Need Help Dealing with Peer Pressure
According to Psychology Today, “in one study, early adolescents, late adolescents, and adults behaved similarly on a computerized driving task when they were by themselves. However, when they were paired with two same-aged friends, clear differences emerged.”
Peer pressure is a real factor in teen behavior. When friends discuss racy shows or mature movies, teenagers try to avoid feeling excluded and hesitate to disagree with popular sentiments... That’s why discussing controversies like “13 Reasons Why,” and providing a fun alternative, can be a better approach than blindly forbidding them.
4. Teen’s Don’t Have Fully Developed Frontal Lobes
Most any parent could have told you teenagers were impulsive and brazen long before studies confirmed it. But it is still important to recognize that at a brain chemistry level, teenagers don’t have the problem solving abilities of adults (much as they’d like to believe differently).
This is because the frontal lobe of the brain develops later in life. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry confirms: “the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.”
This is why monitoring what teens absorb on screen is so crucial. During this period of life, they are particularly easy to influence.
5. Choice and Boundaries Don’t Have to Be Mutually Exclusive
You may worry that setting boundaries on your teen’s entertainment is overly strict, about enough to land you in the “helicopter-mom” category. But boundaries don’t have to restrict choice. Instead, they can become the necessary catalyst for teaching your teenager how to make the right choices. Providing alternatives and bringing your teen into the decision-making process allows you to use even rules as a teaching moment.
6. Media Can Desensitize Us
It is increasingly understood that exposure to violence in media has an impact on behavior. New York Times writers Vasilis K. Pozios, Praveen R. Kambam and H. Eric Bendere, and I don’t have lung cancer. Therefore there’s no link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.” So why use such flawed reasoning when it comes to media violence?
7. Decisions Made in Formative Years Can Last a Lifetime
Underage drinking, marijuana and other drugs, and sexual activity may feel like impulsive decisions of youth, but they can have life long impacts. We all remember the feeling of invincibility we enjoyed while we were teens, and should recognize that our teenagers feel that now. This is why carefully monitoring entertainment during the teen years is so important.
8. Media Has a Profound Impact on Self Esteem
Body positivity has become become a buzzword, but despite the world’s newfound focus on accepting all body types, the most prevalent message the media sends young women is that thin equals beautiful. Sexy equals beautiful. Perfect equals beautiful. These constant messages come from commercials and from shows themselves, and the way they bombard teenagers is something parents must be mindful of.
9. Curiosity Kills
Remember the cinnamon challenge? Dares like this one can seem fun when portrayed in shows and social media, but curiosity can kill. What’s scripted and glamorized may spark curiosity (see point 2, “The Copycat Effect”), but also lead to damaging consequences.
10. Teens’ Brain Chemistry Invites Risky Behavior
Studies have shown that teens’ brains are literally wired for more risky behavior. While this is partially due to under-developed frontal lobes (see point 4), it is also due to the brain’s chemical reward systems.
Psychology Today reports that “brain imaging studies have shown that several areas of the brain make adolescents more sensitive to the rewards of peer relationships than adults... adolescents are more distressed than adults when excluded by peers...These factors provide a “perfect storm” of opportunities for risky behavior.”
11. Consequences are Not Depicted or Discussed
If you’ve ever watched a movie with a high school party scene, you’ve probably recognized that it seems to be all fun and no consequences. Sex, drugs, alcohol consumption, etc., are all shown as “normal” teenage activities, and the inherent risks and consequences are often far less apparent.
12. Lack of Boundaries Results in Lowered Brain Function and School Results
Studies have shown that too much screen time leads to lowered brain function, especially during formative years. Stepping away from the screen occasionally is just as important as being attentive to what is on it.
13. Adults in Training
Teens are “adults in training,” and as such we should be doing what we can to teach them how to make wise decisions for themselves. Allowing your teen access to a streaming alternative or setting parental controls allows you to walk the line between boundaries and choice.
American Family Studios producer Kendra White explains the power of film in building a teen's worldview:
"Filmmakers know how much power storytelling holds and I believe that with that power comes a responsibility to society. Our studio’s founder Don Wildmon once said that the purpose of television ought to be to encourage, uplift and inspire- to try to build a better society not to try to tear down the one we have. That’s why positive alternatives are so important. You aren’t just entertaining. You are building someone’s worldview."
How do you respond to shows like “13 Reasons Why” with your teenager? We’d love to hear your success stories!