The science of brain processing and development reveals the true dangers of media for children.
A lot has been written about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which is a fictional story depicting the suicide of a teenage girl. What’s most disturbing about this “conversation starter” that some are billing as a sign of the times and a type of coming of age story, is what isn’t being said.
Despite full beards or breasts, children and teens are not yet adults; and treating them as though they are helps feed the problem. They do not yet possess the emotional capacity to process issues, and the growing dysfunction in violence, sexuality, and mental health disorders are proof of that. There seems to be a disconnect about why some believe students viewing this series can be harmful. There probably are parents in denial, who believe they can shield their children from the realities of the world. But it’s the science of brain processing and development that reveals the true dangers.
The brain is the control center for the entire body and is a multi-processing engineering marvel. The eyes, ears, nose, etc. are pathways that imprint on the brain and on our subconscious in multiple ways and places all at the same time, while unconsciously releasing powerful chemicals and hormones (cortisol, steroids, oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, etc.), which then become part of the imprinting process, resulting in synaptic growth, development, pruning, and shedding. Neurons that fire together, wire together. A variety of other cell transactions are also active, including “mirror” neurons, which explains why our unconscious automatic response is to smile when someone smiles at us (profoundly visible in babies) and which are integral to bonding, another critical component within the imprinting process.
The brain’s physical growth goes on until the mid-twenties, and neuroplastic growth is occurring all throughout life. The frontal lobe, where reasoning and decision making develop, is the last part of the brain to mature. The mid lobe, in control of limbic and emotional function (which some refer to as the “reptile” brain), controls the powerful survival urges for food, water, and sex and can in some situations override the sympathetic nervous system. Awakening some parts of the brain at age-inappropriate times (such as before the frontal lobe develops) can begin to feed powerful, age-inappropriate, destructive appetites, reinforcing the notion that “what we feed, grows.” These brain changes help explain why pornography is the number one form of child sexual abuse, and at epidemic levels, occurring now at the average age of eight. The porn that young people are now increasingly being exposed to and consuming is also more graphic and violent. Combining graphic sexualization and violence in prolific ways, the likes of which have never been seen before this age of electronics, is a multiplier and a cultural game changer. The program 13 Reasons Why includes scenes of graphic and violent rape that we shouldn’t expect students, who don’t yet possess the capacity (and don’t know they don’t possess the capacity) to adequately process.
Then, there is the actual suicide scene in the series and all that it triggers. Like a magnet, we are drawn to the things we identify with, whether it’s a hobby, idea, or emotion. Our minds are the product of our unique biology and experiences. Even though many individuals might be looking at the same thing, each interprets it in their own way based on personal knowledge and experience. Someone who is vulnerable, has experienced neglect or abuse, or who does not yet possess a physically and emotionally mature, healthy, and optimally functioning brain, is at risk of having powerful emotions triggered through the effect of mirror neurons, setting up the phenomenon that allows suicide (cutting, drug use, sexual urgency, etc.) to become overpowering and even contagious.
Mental health, violence, and sexualization are intricately and co-morbidly linked. There is so much more that should be said, and it could be said in the very same hours it takes to watch 13 Reasons Why. The same imprinting and chemical response system at the root of so many of these struggles can also be harnessed in powerful and healthy ways. The key is in adults being adults who quit seeing and treating children and teens as if they already are adults. It’s never too late to start doing the right thing — and we could see dramatic improvement in a short amount of time when we do.
Comment below. What are your thoughts on 13 Reasons Why? Concerned? Great opportunity for dialogue?