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.