The Netflix drama series called ‘13 Reasons Why’ has become immensely popular among teenagers and the final season was recently released. The show covers a lot of topics including suicide, depression, bullying, low self-esteem, and other issues that most modern young adults have to encounter. While there are a lot of shows covering these topics, this series is unique because it features several scenes that address complicated issues such as self-hatred and a lack of self-acceptance. So, why should parents be worried about ‘just another teen drama’ that depicts day to day stressors, tribulations, and challenges of adolescence? Because bullying, self-harming, and teen suicide are all relevant topics that shouldn’t be glossed over nor glorified.
When portrayed correctly, as per the guidelines of mental health professionals, media content can be powerful in alleviating the stigma surrounding sensitive topics such as teen suicide. Has 13 Reasons Why achieved success in doing so? Evidently not. The show triggered a profound discussion among viewers. So much so that the makers of the TV show had to launch a website called ‘13reasonswhy.info’ to address the concerns raised by several parents across the world. While the crisis resource site discusses guidelines for teenagers experiencing suicidal ideations, are such efforts enough to stop the ‘suicide epidemic’?
The ‘Suicide Epidemic’ of North America
Unlike other leading causes of death (they keep changing over time), suicide has been a constant for the past five decades. In the United States, teen suicide rates haven’t declined at all for several years. Social movements regarding mental health and suicide prevention have largely been ineffective.
• Globally, suicide is the second cause of death for people aged 15-30.
• Studies prove that depictions of suicide or self-harm in the media do impact the behavior of vulnerable teens. For instance, an 18th-century novel written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe addressing the topic of self-harm called ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ was widely considered to be a trigger for the suicide epidemic that ravaged Europe during that time.
• Exposure to visual depictions of suicides can instigate vulnerable teenagers who are already predisposed towards self-harm to attempt suicide.
To learn more about the teen suicide epidemic and how you can protect your child, check out our in-depth article on it here.
Did 13 Reasons Why increase suicide attempts?
According to a study published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 13 Reasons Why was associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youths aged 10-17 in the month following the shows initial release.
The show did also elevate suicide awareness and suicidal ideation. A study probed the increase in suicide-related searches on Google immediately after the show’s premiere on the 31st of March 2017 –
• Suicide related queries marked a 19% increase than average for 19 days since the show’s premiere.
• There were an additional 1.5 million suicide-related searches than average.
Of the top twenty suicide-related Google searches, most of them (17/20) were about suicidal ideation. Some of the top searches during that period included –
• “how to commit suicide”
• “commit suicide”
• “teen suicide”
• “How to kill yourself”
Other ‘positive’ search trends during that period included phrases such as –
• “suicide hotline number”
• “suicide hotline”
• “suicide prevention”
Why Parents Should be Worried about Negative Media Exposure
The portrayal of suicidal behavior in TV shows or movies does have negative influences on vulnerable groups. In some cases, media content displaying romanticized scenes of suicide can act as the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for teens who are contemplating self-harm. There’s overwhelming evidence for such impacts.
How ‘Vulnerable Teenagers’ Felt about 13 Reasons Why
The number of mentally vulnerable teenagers is almost always on the increase. These are children who suffer from long-term depression and have constant suicidal ideations. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry perfectly demonstrates why all parents (not only the parents of children suffering from prior mental disorders) need to be concerned about their children watching TV shows that romanticize suicide –
• The study found that children who experienced increased rates of suicidal ideation after watching 13 Reasons Why were already suffering from some form of pre-existing psychopathology
• But, the increase in suicidal ideation among children with no past history of depression or suicidal ideation was significant.
• 4.7% of the adolescents who participated in the study (with no prior history of suicidal ideation) stated that they contemplated suicide after watching the show.
Think Twice Before Allowing Your Teenager to Watch 13 Reasons Why
It is clear that children who were most negatively affected by watching the show were high-risk individuals. The show may also have positive effects on children, such as suicidal awareness or learning about the dangers of bullying. But, here are some reasons why parents need to be extra careful about the type of TV shows their impressionable children watch –
i. TV series or movies that romanticize suicide or murder places negative thoughts inside the minds of impressionable viewers.
ii. Dramatized depictions of suicide do increase suicide attempts. In many cases, teenagers use the same methods of self-harm as their favorite on-screen characters use.
iii. These impacts are even worse when suicidal tendencies are depicted without any context about mental illness.
iv. The plot of 13 Reasons Why centers around the suicide of the central character being blamed on others. In most cases (over 90%), the cause of suicide is a mental illness, not the actions of other people. The concept of self-harm depicted in the TV series is not statistically accurate.
v. The series does not portray self-harm as an illogical act. In fact, suicide is depicted as the protagonist’s only rational choice.
vi. The central character commits suicide as a means to address her emotional pain. The people who caused her emotional torment are then ‘hunted’ for wronging her.
vii. The imagery of self-harm in the show is extremely dramatized graphic and ‘aesthetic.’ Such false portrayals often encourage imitators to take the same steps that their favorite fictional character took.
viii. The series has been marketed to target teens. But, the content in the show is adult-themed.
ix. After repeated complaints, Netflix had to team up with mental health advocates to post carefully crafted trigger warnings in certain scenes.
x. The show clearly mocks the role of parents, mental health counselors, and school teachers, suggesting adults are completely incapable of helping vulnerable adolescents.
xi. The protagonist doesn’t show any physical signs of mental torment up until the final day of the suicide (dark circles, inability to sleep, etc.). In reality, most adolescent suicide victims contemplate self-harm for months before taking conclusive steps.
xii. The show that is targeted towards teenagers contains multiple graphic scenes of sexual assault.
xiii. Suicide, self-harm, or depressions are not issues that need to be twisted and used as entertainment.
Some Positive Effects of 13 Reasons Why
• Several professional organizations dedicated to improving the mental health of vulnerable students have provided valuable commentary regarding adolescent exposure to sensitive content.
• Multiple high school students across the United States took part in programs called ‘13 Reasons Why Not’. These programs were created to boost conversations about mental health strategies for vulnerable adolescents. Some other valuable topics discussed in these programs included peer to peer support for at-risk adolescents and the role of adults in guiding teenagers to make better decisions.
• Numerous healthcare professionals commented on the negative effects of the TV show. Mental health support was advocated by these professionals for students in school, communities, and other clinical settings. All of them encouraged professionals to watch the show and explore its potential negative effects.
• There have been numerous articles suggesting the development of diverse strategies to prevent suicide.
• The show was the most tweeted about TV series of 2017. The show’s flaws and imperfections when it came to portraying self-harm amongst teenagers played a positive role in increasing public debate about mental health.
What Can Parents Do to Capitalize on the Positive Effects?
Censorship does not work for the modern teenager. If they see a TV show trending on social media, they will see it one way or another. Suggesting that teenagers should be barred from watching such shows is impractical. Hence, such decisions (whether or not to watch sensitive content) should be individualized. Parents should speak to their children about the show.
Two factors play significant roles in the majority of teen suicides – impulsivity and comorbid psychiatric diagnoses. Addressing the first is almost impossible for parents. However, there are observable signs of psychiatric illnesses that parents must know about.
Some observable signs of psychiatric illnesses among teenagers include –
• Lying on the bed for long periods
• Reluctance to socialize
• Substance abuse
• Loss of self-esteem
• Loss of interest in hobbies or pastimes that used to be cherished
• Cellphone addiction
• Hesitance to speak about day to day activities
If parents can spot these signs early on, they can provide their children with suitable mental care services in a timely manner. But, there are some unobservable signs of mental torture as well. These signs are often hidden in the cellphones or internet chatrooms. Online bullying (one of the themes of 13 Reasons Why) is a major cause of teenage depression. To read more about cyberbullying, check out our article on it here.
Looking Out for Your Child Without Hampering their Privacy
Although you may think that checking your child’s phone is your parental right, your child may see it as an oppressive act that hampers his or her privacy. A good way to tow this sensitive line is to tackle the potential evils of technology with technology. MMGuardian is an app designed to guarantee that your teenage child’s exposure to the digital world is as safe as possible.
After installing MMGuardian on their child’s phone, parents will be able to view their child’s messages on major social media and messaging apps, get comprehensive reports about their internet activity, and receive alerts whenever there’s a message that is indicative of cyberbullying, sexual exploitation, violence, suicide, or other forms of risks, and alerts for inappropriate pictures stored on the phone – all of this from the parent’s own phone via the MMGuardian parent app. Parents will also have access to an extensive set of other controls such as contact blocking, phone locking, app blocking, and much more.
To get started with MMGuardian and receive a 14-day free trial, click here.
Consider also joining our Facebook group “Tech-Savvy Parenting” to discuss raising kids in the 21st century with other parents.
As long as there are teen suicides and other societal issues involving teenagers, there will be controversial TV shows such as 13 Reasons Why. Art, after all, is a cheap imitation of reality. Hence, a partnership between parents, children, and technological tools such as MMGuardian is vital in this battle to shape a safer world for our children.