This blog post is written by Sara Borgstede, mom of 5 children (including 3 teens) and a foster and adoptive mom of children with complex mental health issues.
13 REASONS WHY is an original Netflix television show giving a fictional look into the life of Hannah Baker, an American teen who is struggling to navigate the complexities of high school. At the start of the show, she has committed suicide and her voice narrates through a series of cassette tapes she left behind for the 13 people who influenced her decision to commit this ultimate act.
I was interested when this show came up on my Netflix queue because I first read the novel 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher a couple years ago at the recommendation of my teen daughter, Kiersten, who read it for a high school Language Arts class. While I remember being impacted by the book, I wasn’t planning to watch the TV show immediately.
Then I began seeing blogs such as these roll across my Facebook screen:
I sat up and took notice.
Why NOT watch 13 REASONS WHY? Well, HERE’S why not.
Considerations for Teen Viewers
Note: Spoilers about the show below.
Is it okay for teens to watch 13 REASONS WHY?
There is no question about the graphic nature of 13 REASONS WHY. Topics delved into on the show include suicide, stalking, bullying (internet, social media, and in life), drug use, homosexuality, swearing, nudity, sexual content, self-harm, cutting, and rape.
While ultimately a judgment call for parents, ideally this is a show to watch with older teens and discuss together after each episode. After watching all 13 episodes, I hesitate to recommend this show even for older teens primarily because of the graphic nature and also because of the unrealistic portrayal of a person with mental health issues.
If you have an older teen who wants to watch the show, as a parent I would not forbid it, but I would absolutely watch it together with them and discuss it after each episode.
Some episodes of the show are incredibly graphic. Two different rape episodes are fully shown in close-to-pornographic detail. In the suicide scene, Hannah is shown deeply cutting her wrists and bleeding to death in a bathtub. I had to turn away in stomach-turning horror during these episodes. For people who are tempted to cut themselves (an act that has risen in popularity among teen girls in a almost fad-like manner in recent years), this scene is considered triggering.
Is the show realistic? In ways, yes. My teens tell me these topics are realistic. The issue is that 13 REASONS WHY is overly dramatic. One of my daughters rolled her eyes and left the room during one episode saying, “Oh good grief!” Remember this is a Hollywood version of teen angst that is hyped and condensed down into 13 jam-packed episodes.
One of the biggest slams of the show is that it glorifies suicide, and there is truth to that. The main character gets her say, almost revenge, in a grand and glorious way all the show long, but at the end she is after all – dead. This is important to point out to teens many times over, because their brains don’t always compute that reality.
Valerie Fesh, who has been suicidal and writes about suicide prevention on her blog, tells us,
I’ve been there and there’s no way that I would’ve had the energy for all the planning she obviously did and making the tapes and lists, etc. Not to mention that every single time that I’ve been suicidal to the point that I’ve attempted or been about to attempt, if I’ve had any feelings about anyone at all, its been that they would be better off without me and that my death would relieve them of the burden of me. Most of the time though people who get that close to attempting or actually attempt are so completely disconnected from reality that they’re not thinking of anything except making the pain stop. I’ve heard many many stories from a wide range of people and this desire to stop the pain and make others’ lives better off is common across the board. The main character in 13 Reasons definitely seems more stable and clear headed than I’ve ever been when I’ve felt suicidal.
Adults are portrayed as clueless in 13 REASONS WHY. As I watched, I waited for the time when a teen would have a meaningful conversation with an adult, and it never arrived.
Also blatantly missing is mental health care. Except for a couple passing mentions and a visit with a school counselor whose role is unclear, we do not see visits to doctors or therapists. There is no group therapy or serious discussion about the real help that is available.
This show will probably appeal to teen girls more than boys. We have 2 young adult daughters. Our 20-year-old binge-watched the shows in 2 days and our 18 year old watched a couple of the episodes with me. Our 15 year old boy, a high school Freshman, is more interested in watching THE IRON FIST. He watched a couple episodes because I was watching, and he agreed that it mirrored real high school situations but was overly dramatic.
I do not recommend this show for pre-teens. I would not allow my 7th grader to watch this. Although I think pre-teens need to discuss these topics, the graphic nature of the show would burn some scenes into their brains in a way they are not ready to handle.
One area where this show gets it right is the complexities of sexual assault within the young adult age group. Lines blur at parties, when alcohol is involved, and when people pretend afterward that everything is okay. Sexual assault is not to be tolerated. Let’s teach our boys and our girls very clear boundaries, how to stand up for themselves, and how to be safe in this regard.
Have you watched 13 REASONS WHY? Do you plan to watch? Share in the comments below.
A longer version of this article originally appeared at SaraBorgstede.com.