• Why I Allowed My Teen to Watch 13 Reasons Why

    by  • May 3, 2017 • Internet Safety • 5 Comments

    Why the series was valuable to my daughter — and myself. 

    It’s probably one of the most controversial teen TV series since Gossip Girl. The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is suddenly getting media attention this week, due to rising concerns by mental health professionals about its graphic portrayal of teen suicide. Netflix is even adding a new warning to the front of the series. However, it’s a little late. After being out more than a month, most teens and tweens I know have already watched it, and most without their parents even knowing that the TV program existed. However, I am not here to add to the rising concerns about the series but instead, as an educator, a media critic, and a parent, to explain the reasons why I felt the series was valuable to my daughter and myself.

    The program, created from a book, is about a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind a box of tapes in which she explains the 13 reasons why she committed suicide. Almost all of the reasons are due to being bullied by her peers. Some mental health counselors are worried about it being an issue for vulnerable teens who are already considering suicide. While I certainly understand how it could be a trigger for children who are already hurting (as would be talking to another teen who wants to commit suicide), for my 14-year-old daughter, it was an eye-opening education on how one small thing can lead to another bigger thing, which can finally end in death. In other words, every communication matters, whether that’s a text, a Snapchat, a Finsta (fake Instagram account), a phone call, or in the halls at school. And what I learned is that bullying is everywhere. E-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. If you think your child hasn’t been bullied (or has been the bully), with all due respect, you’re out of the loop. It is horrible how teens treat each other, even the “good” kids. Social media has created insecure monsters.

    But, this series also hit close to home for my family, which is why it got my attention in the first place. This year, my daughter started her freshman year at high school and almost immediately had to deal with an older girl on her cheer team who had committed suicide, something no one really saw coming. As I went to pick her up from the cheer practice room that day, I will never forget the wailing coming from the broken hearts of 31 girls who had to grow up way too soon that day. They have spent the rest of the year honoring their friend as they tried desperately to heal their wounds and make sense of the senseless.

    But, that’s not all my daughter has had to face this year: She’s had to deal with friends cutting (an issue more common than I realized) and witness a girlfriend bullied unmercifully for being “too pretty.” She’s also had friends have pressure put on them to have sex from porn-addicted boys whose parents didn’t feel they needed to be monitored because “boys will be boys.” Did I mention she is 14-years-old? 14. And this is in Norman, Oklahoma, a family-oriented community, one of the top 5% school districts in the nation, and a safer-than-usual college town. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

    This series was as real as it gets and that’s why I watched it with her (no child really should watch it alone, and maybe that’s the real issue here–lack of parental involvement). But I found great value in the lessons told, especially about not putting yourself in compromising positions like going to unsupervised parties, or using drugs or alcohol which can lead to being assaulted. But, more importantly, we learned that the girl or boy next to you might be hurting, and it may not be obvious. Unfortunately, my daughter had already learned that lesson.

    The clueless counselor and other adults in the show may rub people the wrong way, but frankly, at most school systems where there’s limited money to train people professionally, it does happen where a well-meaning administrator gives the wrong advice. For me, it put a spotlight on a problem that we need to address, which is getting better training in our schools to help struggling kids.

    The series is not for everyone, and I wonder if I would have recommended the series so publicly if my daughter hadn’t had the year she’s had. Honestly, I probably would still be naïve to how hard things are for teens nowadays. But, while it’s difficult to see my child’s innocence shattered, I’d rather take the blinders off to the harsh realities of the modern-day teen world now, and be proactive about addressing these sensitive topics with my daughter before it’s too late. I do recommend parents watch the series with their child, but if they have already watched it, I suggest you watch it yourself and then talk to them about it. It could be a moment that can change their life and your own forever.

    Let us know below.  Have you, or would you, allow your child to watch 13 Reasons Why?



    Kathleen Johnson is McMahon Centennial Professor of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma. She has over 25 years of award-winning experience in top executive, programming, and production positions in broadcast, network, cable, satellite, and new media.

    5 Responses to Why I Allowed My Teen to Watch 13 Reasons Why

    1. Elie PasionCaiani
      May 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm

      I think, actually I am convinced our society is being bullied by the networks. Taking away the board of censors has allowed the bullying. When I hear from the media “if you don’t want the “edgy and realistic ” programming just don’t watch it. The media says, “you have a choice ” actually the choices of programs are more MA, R, and basically filth.

      I think the access to inappropriate material to the young people without parental input is appalling. Also, the educational system the way it’s set up have taken away authority to the teachers under the guise of “political correctness.”

      Thankfully there is light and praying for more light to dispel the darkness.

    2. Janet
      May 7, 2017 at 1:44 pm

      Dear Mrs. Pine,

      It is unfortunate that you consider yourself qualified to recommend this series. I did not see child psychologist listed in your credentials. You are obviously a bright, highly talented, professional. Why would you encourage or suggest that this program might be helpful in any way? The adolescent brain is not fully developed and teens have difficulty discerning the real consequences of certain actions. In addition to that, many have mental health issues and/or experience horrific things and are traumatized, at the hands of people that are supposed to keep them safe. For Netflix to make this program available to hundreds of vulnerable teens is reprehensible. I do agree with your comment regarding adults in the schools. However, lack of training is not the only reason a teen might get the wrong information or be overlooked. The lack of staff in our schools is a reality. Fewer funds result in fewer staff available to students. Maybe that is where Netflix should put their money instead of adding to the problem. They could be a source of support in suicide prevention instead of romanticizing it.

    3. Nana Anna
      May 7, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      What bothers me the most about this series is that it is obviously targeted to teens, yet (well-deservedly) rated MA. The makers of this show claim that it’s important subject matter justifies the content, but they could have made their point without including literally hundreds of “F words” and practically every type of objectionable behavior imaginable (promiscuous sex, drinking, drugs, cliff-climbing without any safety gear, etc. etc.). Teens are impressionable, and seeing a show about their own peer group where just about everyone participates in these behaviors serves to glorify and normalize them. If Netflix is going to make a show that every teen is going to want to watch, it should have content appropriate for that age group. It is not only irresponsible of them to do otherwise, but downright evil.

    4. Joe
      May 7, 2017 at 11:06 am

      No. It’s a shame that TV writers and producers think it is their responsibility to educate rather than leaving it up to parents. I think these producers and writers have a lot to learn themselves.

    5. Mrs. Pline
      May 5, 2017 at 9:13 pm

      No, I would not allow my children to watch this if I had a choice. Unfortunately, they already have. I found out about it when my previously suicidal daughter told me she had been watching it, and it made her feel suicidal again just to see it. Furthermore, I have heard it is very, very graphic! I don’t even watch graphic material myself because it gives me nightmares. I can’t imagine young people having these images burned on their memory! It seems this story could be told without getting so graphic. It also makes me angry that by the time we were aware of this series, it was already too late for most of us to decide if we wanted our children to watch it or not.

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