13 Reasons Why is coming back for a second season on May 18, 2018. You need to know this.
When the 2017 Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why, burst on the scene in dramatic style, teens around the country started viewing it and talking about it. Parents, schools, and mental health professionals soon began sounding of the alarm. Rightfully so.
A hit for Netflix, 13 Reasons Why is an emotional, raw, and dramatic look into the lives of a group of teenagers at a fictional high school. The show is a screen adaptation of the best selling and acclaimed 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher.
The first season centered around two friends, a boy and a girl in high school. The boy finds a box of cassette tapes left on his porch. The tapes contain audio recordings of his friend who took her own life two weeks prior. In the tapes, the young girl who committed suicide reveals the thirteen reasons she took her own life, all somehow connected to people she knows. Each tape must be heard by a person to whom she attributes her death in a chain that, if broken, will result in the public release of humiliating information.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10-24. In the SF Bay Area, many communities have been directly impacted by the well publicized and widely felt suicide death of at least one student in the last five years. Increased stress and anxiety, as well as greater attention to issues of mental health, have heightened our awareness around the issue. It is a reality of our youth, whether we want it to be or not. Certainly, burying our heads in the sand is not the answer. However, what are parents and educators to do when the fears around teens viewing shows such as 13 Reasons Why are so legitimate?
Why are teens attracted to 13 Reasons Why?
It’s important to understand why teens are so attracted to such seemingly negative and dark material. The first and primary reason that teenagers are attracted to 13 Reasons Why is because it’s about THEM. Teens are developmentally self-centered. It’s not completely their fault. Their emotional, physical, and mental development during the teen years causes them to focus on their own journey of individuation. There is very little value to many teenagers in the sanitized and pollyannic world of entertainment that we want to build for them. The producers of 13 Reasons Why understand that a raw and explicit show centered around issues that may not impact every teenager, but do impact at least one person every teenager knows, is television gold. Teen brains love shots of dopamine and watching shows with explicit topics, themes, scenes--especially those that teens know their parents don’t want them to watch--provides a steady stream of dopamine to the brain’s reward centers.
Teens also love to FEEL. While the prefrontal cortex, or the “CEO of the brain” is underdeveloped in teens, the parts of the brain that process emotion are more developed and working overtime. Teens are attracted to shows that make them feel scared, sad, elated. It’s not so much that they care WHAT they are feeling but THAT they are feeling. 13 Reasons Why has all kinds of “feels” and that, in and of itself, is enough to attract teen attention and engagement.
It also doesn’t hurt that the show is done well. The show, its producers, writers, and actors have all received acclaim. Who doesn’t like a well produced, well written, and well performed television show? Certainly, our teens do.
How can parents respond?
The most important step a parent can take is to be informed. Read this blog. Check out what Common Sense Media has to say (it’s on the front of their website this week). Watch Season One. Talk to folks who have seen the series.
The next step is to talk to your child. Does your teen have any interest in watching the show? What do they know about it? How do they feel about it? If your child has never heard about it, let them know that if and when they do, you’d love to talk about it with them; otherwise, you don’t need to worry. If they have heard about it and don’t have any interest, do the same--let them know that if and when they do that you’d love to talk about it with them; otherwise, not to worry. If they have an interest, it’s time to consider what you will do next.
Decide the expectations you will set. Will you let your child watch 13 Reasons Why? If not, why not? This is important to know ahead of time, before your child asks. It’s okay to be honest with them. For students in our district, ages three through fourteen, we do not recommend allowing students to watch 13 Reasons Why. We particularly caution parents of children whose mental health and wellness are already a concern.
If you decide to allow your teen to watch the series, consider asking them some important questions that require them to process the impact of what they are seeing. The high school my district’s students matriculate into recently sent these great questions to their parents. Engage in a discussion with your child around these questions.
Additionally, if you are going to allow your child to watch the show, please consider watching it with them so you can help them understand and process what they are seeing and feeling.
The National Association of School Psychologists published a thorough resources page on 13 Reasons Why and provided the following suggestion to parents and those working with youth.
There are a variety of resources in our schools and communities. Don’t hesitate to reach out to school staff including our amazing counselors and mental health professionals. If you live in California’s San Mateo County you may consider one of the many local resources available.
Nationwide, teens in crisis or a friend or loved one of a teen in crisis can contact the Crisis Text Line. Simply text the word “REASON” to 741741 or visit http://www.crisistextline.org. Communication is free, available 24/7, and confidential. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available by dialing 1-800-273-8255 or visiting http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Discussion guides to facilitate talking with teens about some of 13 Reasons Why topics include:
Raising, educating, and supporting teens is a challenge even in the best of circumstances. We can’t protect our children from everything; however, understanding the messages that bombard them and opening lines of communication are two proactive steps we can take to increase the chances that the teens in our lives will survive and thrive the roller coaster that is adolescence.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.