If you are a parent of a 6th grader or older teen in Middle or High school, then you should probably know about the Netflix TV series, “13 Reasons Why.” If you are a parent and don’t know about this Netflix show, this will be an eye-opener! “13 Reasons Why” premiered on March 31, 2017 and exploded on the scene with its graphic portrayal of a teen suicide. The series revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details thirteen reasons why she ended her life.
I must admit, as a psychologist, who specializes in child, adolescent, and family work, I too found out that my own teen had been well into watching the series before I asked her about it. This prompted much family discussion – not just about the content of the series, but about our parenting supervision as well. So in fact, this is a two-pronged discussion about both really knowing about what our kids are watching (on TV, tablets, phones, game systems, and other media), as well as the very real dangers of teen suicide.
The general concern about children watching “13 Reasons Why” without family supervision is that the idea of suicide can glorified, justified, or romanticized as a valid option to social pain. This teenage girl shares her story of having been the victim of bulling, sexual abuse, and social isolation. Marissa Martinelli, of Slate Magazine wrote:
“It’s understandable why the people involved in the show might think that starting any kind of conversation about suicide would be a good thing, considering that the topic is so often stigmatized. But the discussions we are having now are focused on the way that the show, as it stands alone, could do more harm than good by ignoring established messaging guidelines and presenting an unrealistic and romanticized portrait of a teenager in crisis. Of course people are talking about the series—it would be irresponsible for parents and educators to let the show’s messaging stand on its own. 13 Reasons Why dropped a bombshell into homes and schools, and it now has mental health and suicide prevention professionals doing damage control. More often than not, school counselors are the ones picking up the pieces.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 24. We know that in our lives, in a room of 10 people, someone has either been touched personally or professionally by suicide. It’s a sensitive subject, it’s a scary subject, and it’s not easy to talk about. I will not engage in a debate about the pros & cons of our youth seeing a show like “13 Reasons Why,” but questions can be raised about how media may trigger suicide behavior in our children. Will there be “copy-cat” deaths? Does it give our teens ideas to glorify death or downplay sexual abuse, symptoms of mental illness, depression, and bullying? The dangers of teen suicide are all too real.
The American Academy of Pediatrics identified the following signs that may signal that a depressed teen may be considering suicide:
- Withdrawal from friends and family members
- Trouble in romantic relationships
- Difficulty getting along with others
- Changes in the quality of schoolwork or lower grades
- Rebellious behaviors
- Unusual gift-giving or giving away own possessions
- Appearing bored or distracted
- Writing or drawing pictures about death
- Running away from home
- Changes in eating habits
- Dramatic personality changes
- Changes in appearance (for the worse)
- Sleep disturbances
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Talk of suicide, even in a joking way
- Having a history of previous suicide attempts
Even younger children are vastly influenced by the media they are watching, especially without supervision. Animated cartoons, memes, You Tube videos, games, and chats all display violence, meanness, cruelty to others, excessive profanity and sexually provocative material as regular everyday occurrence. If we as parents do not really take an interest in what are kids are being desensitized to, how can we hold the makers of these shows responsible? So, what can we do?
Find out what your children are watching. Don’t be afraid to watch a controversial show or series together as a family. These can be great opportunities to learn about our children, their ideas, what they question, how they think, what they may have already experienced.
Crystal Jackson, of Elephant Journal offered these helpful thoughts and ideas:
- Here’s the number 1 rule for watching “13 Reasons Why” (and similar shows): Do not allow your child/teen to watch this show alone. This show contains mature subject matter, and you can discuss issues with your child as they come up.
- Be aware that this show is graphic. Sexual assault and suicide are depicted. Strong language is in every episode, and all of the themes are mature. With that being said, it’s also an extremely accurate look at what children and teens experience in school and are a great reminder for parents.
- Suicide triggers are present in this show. If your teen is suicidal, proceed with caution and take the time to process each episode thoroughly with your child. This show and the book it’s based on aren’t meant to glamorize suicide, but it can trigger those thoughts as well as self-harming behaviors. Do some outside research to be aware of the signs and keep an open line of communication.
- Sexual assault triggers also exist. Tertiary trauma can result from being exposed to this type of material. Keep an open line of communication with your child during these episodes. This is a great opportunity to discuss consent with your child and to also discuss how rape culture is perpetuated and can impact others.
- Do not, I repeat: Do not, trivialize what you see. If it seems unimportant to you as an adult, remember that this is a daily reality for your child. So, avoid platitudes and minimizing the importance of bullying, gossip, or any other behaviors that you see portrayed.
- Listen more than you speak. Allow your child to openly discuss any issues or concerns without judgment, criticism, or punishment. Allow them to lead the conversation.
Open communication with your children is essential for protecting them and keeping them safe emotionally and physically. Often, teens feel as though they have no one to turn to when their problems feel overwhelming. Knowing who and what influences your child is your best means to invite questions, open non-judgmental dialogue, and see know professional help is needed.
Dr. Stuart Leeds, a clinical psychologist with Morris Psychological Group, can be reached at 973-257-9000 x 206.