What Parents Should Know About 13 Reasons Why

Teagan Quinnell
The second season of 13 Reasons Why was recently released on Netflix. Does the drama’s explicit depictions of “real life” issues have something to offer today’s youth?

Adapted from the novel written by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why deals with issues of self-harm, bullying, sexual assault, suicide, and mental health among high school students. It follows the memoirs of Hannah Baker, a suicide victim who left behind 13 tapes detailing the events and characters that ultimately led her to take her own life. The first season took the attention of many young people by storm, and it seems the second season, just added to the Netflix New Releases list, is just as arresting as the first.

I am sure some of our students will be binge-watching the series over the weekend. I admit, I watched the first season and it was intense, even for me. I began watching season 2 and within the first 10 minutes of the first episode I found the content too grim for me to continue to watch. Some viewers argue that the show depicts “real life” and is constructive for teenagers. Others feel the show may be too graphic and explicit for young audiences. Regardless of which part of the spectrum you find yourself on, the show does raise awareness about experiences many young people face every day. As a result, we want to equip our parents in the same way we are informing our teachers. Spoilers ahead.
It’s the duty of a parent to wade into their child’s world and offer guidance as they navigate the beautiful, painful, mess that is life.

13 Reasons Why depicts serious issues we should be discussing with our children.

The days of saying “you’ll find out when you’re older” and that actually being true have long been over—perhaps they never really existed. Much of the plot revolves around topics of sex ethics with abuse, male chauvinism, and consent being major themes. These are issues that we have seen rise to the surface in the last decade in a staggering way. In response to this, sex and sexuality are topics we should be regularly discussing with our children, right alongside emotional health, self image, religious tolerance, and racism to name a few. Many of us in prior generations grew up in a community that withheld information in an effort to protect at best, and to control at worst. This left many with an incomplete understanding of themselves and the world around them. We want this generation to not only know how they ought to be treated but also how they ought to (and ought not to) treat others. It’s important that parents both protect their children from being victims and prevent them from victimizing others. The best way to do that is by creating a safe space for open dialogue.

The craze over 13 Reasons Why is proof that young people want to know about the brokenness that exists within humanity and that they need something to relate to their own pain. As uncomfortable as it may be at times, it’s the duty of a parent to wade into their child’s world and offer guidance as they navigate the beautiful, painful, mess that is life. So when and how is it appropriate to have these discussions with your child? That’s for you as a parent to pray and decide. A good place to start is to ask good questions and listen.

There may be multiple triggers throughout the show for victims of depression or trauma.

Victims of trauma often survive in a perpetual state of fear as a result of their experience(s). In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Steven Stosny describes the cycle: “The more you experience fear, the more sensitized to possible danger you become.” Graphic images, explicit language, and talk of trauma, can all be triggers for people who have experienced abuse and 13 Reasons Why doesn’t hold back. Both seasons are inundated with graphic depictions of sexual abuse, including rape, along with drug references, alcohol abuse, and gun use. Popsugar describes a rape scene at the end of the first seasons as, “brutal would be an understatement.” The second season also includes a violent rape scene, among other grim events scattered throughout. Is the realism necessary? Another gray area to navigate. But I would err on the side of caution, especially for those who have experienced a form of trauma.
There’s no shame in asking for help.
Furthermore, it risks both triggering some and desensitizing others. Viewers may unwittingly think they understand another person’s experience with depression simply because they’ve watched the show. That would be a mistake. Depression is painful and at times debilitating and unique to each individual. Laura Quinn, STEM Department Head at CCA and mental health activist, shared in a recent interview, “It’s important to understand that when we experience this type of imbalance in either our emotions, or physiology, or just our spirit, that there is hope. There is an answer. And that answer is often more complex than we think it is . . . there’s no shame in asking for help.” It’s important that people who suspect they may be clinically depressed share their experience with people they trust, as well as seek professional care.

13 Reasons Why is not real life.

Seems obvious, right? Maybe, but children can easily internalize what they see and hear. It’s important that they know that this story is not their story, even if they see parallels in their own life. They can get help. They can be safe. They can be heard. It’s also important for viewers to realize that though the issues may be real and relevant, the show is not an accurate picture of reality. In the show, the attachment viewers develop for the suicide victim, Hannah, does not end with her death. It continues with flashbacks and visions of her character, she lives on in the world of the show. But when people commit suicide in real life, their life story ends there. They’re not immortalized in a television show for thousands to see. They can’t be written back into the plot. They’re gone, just the pain of that loss is left behind.

Though the show may explore major moral issues our culture is facing today, I can’t help but question whether the means may do more harm than good in the end. Ultimately, it’s your decision as a family to make. If your child is watching 13 Reasons Why, talk to them about it; be involved.

Here are some questions to help get a conversation started:
  • Have you or your friends watched 13 Reasons Why? What are the issues it deals with? Do you think it portrays the issues accurately?

  • Do you feel like you can relate to these stories? How do you think God feels and responds when people experience deep pain, injustice, or loss?

  • Do you think counseling would have helped any of the characters? Do you think there is a stigma surrounding seeking professional help? If you needed to, do you feel like you have an adult you can talk to?

  • How can you as a Christian offer support to others? Do you think you would take the opportunity to stand up for someone who was being bullied?

  • Some of the scenes in the show are pretty graphic. Do you think this level of realism is necessary for the show to make an impact?

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  • Mychelle Pavlik
    Thank you for your encouragement to have these talks and get involved. I am so grateful I have a choice to be intentional with my son and equip him. I can't un-know what I am privileged to be aware of now. Praise God for this gift! We can do it together!

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