A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that 13 Reasons Why is an intense, dark Netflix drama based on the popular young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. The first season explores the motivations that led Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a troubled teen, to die by suicide. We hear about the bullying, sexual assault, and other traumatic events in her life. Messages about compassion, empathy, and not taking others for granted are clear, but the fact that Hannah blames others for her suicide may send the wrong idea to sensitive teens. Hannah's suicide is shown in great detail in the original series (but was edited out by Netflix in 2019 on advice of suicide prevention experts and doctors), as is more than one graphic rape scene, including one that's extremely brutal and involves a mop. There's also teen drinking and lots of swearing ("f--k," "s--t," and "a--holes"). In the show's second season, the students of Liberty High continue to process Hannah's death while dealing with their own issues, including self-harm, more bullying, gun violence, and the pressure of testifying in a court case about Hannah. The third season is framed as a murder mystery with some main characters implicated, and also has an abortion storyline, steroid use, and immigration issues. The fourth and final season sees a main character die of AIDS, after being homeless and a sex worker, while another deals with serious mental health issues like PTSD.
While this challenging story can help families start useful conversations about issues like bullying, sexual assault, and depression, the way these issues are addressed go against the advice of many mental health experts and may be confusing for some viewers, especially younger ones. To this end, Netflix has added trigger warnings to episodes that contain especially graphic or disturbing content, as well as brief videos with cast members stating that kids already at risk for depression and other mental health issues may not want to watch the show. Netflix account holders are able to set a PIN code for this series (or for any mature show) that will be required before others can view.
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What's the story?
13 REASONS WHY follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he wrestles with his feelings after the recent suicide of his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Haunted by their brief friendship and her shocking death, Clay is surprised when a package arrives containing audio tapes on which Hannah chronicled the 13 matters -- and 13 people who caused them -- that led her to end her life. As Clay listens to each side and follows clues Hannah left on the recordings, he retraces events that reveal secrets and her peers' roles in them, connecting the dots that inspired her death. The second season follows Clay and his friends as they continue to process Hannah's death five months later. The court case against Liberty High continues, and most of the characters are called to testify. There's a focus on justice for victims in this season, and issues like self-harm (in the form of cutting), gun violence, loneliness, heroin addiction, slut-shaming, and more are addressed.
Is it any good?
This series isn't a pleasant watch by any means, but it does raise vital issues that can inspire valuable discussions between parents and teens. There are two disturbing forces at play throughout the story, the first being Hannah's downward spiral and the circumstances that instigated it. Serious matters like cyberbullying, body image, sexual assault, drug abuse, and gun violence are addressed unflinchingly; these scenes can be extremely graphic and difficult to watch for adults, let alone the targeted teen audience.
Hannah's choices are also complicated; it's clear that she blames others for her suicide. One wonders what, if anything, she hoped to gain by inflicting posthumous guilt on parties either actively engaged in tormenting her or innocently involved. As 13 Reasons Why is told from Clay's point of view, there's sympathy for him and others left behind, giving viewers a thought-provoking glimpse of what it's like to pick up the pieces after a suicide. In the second season, Clay's journey continues, and watching him and his friend group work through even more brutal challenges is nearly too much to bear, but there's also beauty in Clay's processing of grief and Jessica's courage to speak up about her sexual assault. A side plot about a potential school shooting is a bit sensationalized but also highlights the pain of loneliness. At-risk teens should take great care in choosing to watch this very graphic and frank series, but families with mature teens may find that it opens up doors to talk about some difficult subjects.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the issues raised in 13 Reasons Why. Have your teens witnessed or experienced cyberbullying or more traditional bullying? What different forms can this behavior take these days? What defenses can you use against it?
Teens: Do you find your peer pool to be mostly inclusive or exclusive? Can social media be a curse as well as a blessing? How does our constant connection to other people via cell phones cause stress? On the other hand, what are the benefits of this culture?
Families can talk about gun violence and safety. In Season 2, guns play a major role in the plot for a few different characters. Are they used responsibly? What do you think about the availability of guns in this show? Is it realistic?
Families can also talk about suicide and the way it's addressed in this series. When is it important to talk about mental health, especially if you're worried about a friend or family member? Netflix has a website to visit after viewing the series, 13ReasonsWhy.info. What other resources are available to help both kids and adults?
Sexual assault, specifically the rape of main characters, plays a large role in this series. Families can talk about resources available to teens; the Crisis Text Line is an excellent way for phone-shy teens to reach out in times of need.
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