The Netflix series aimed explicit content at children without adequate safeguards or resources.
The PTC’s major concern with 13 Reasons Why is rooted in the fact that it is being marketed to children. We understand and appreciate that there are positive consequences that can come from a program that deals realistically with issues like depression and suicide. But 13 Reasons Why contained explicit language, graphic violence, and depictions of drinking and drug use inappropriate for teens. Netflix acknowledged this by rating the program TV-MA (mature audiences only).
But despite its contents and its rating (both controlled by Netflix), the show wasn’t marketed to grownups; it was marketed to — and overwhelming consumed by – children, most often viewing alone. Furthermore, there was no effort by Netflix to warn parents of the program’s graphic content, or to urge children to watch the program with their parents.
In its first season, 13 Reasons Why had a profoundly harmful impact, as demonstrated by academic research which showed a 26% spike in Google searches to learn how to commit suicide subequent to the airing of the program. We have seen the news stories of grieving parents whose children took their own lives after watching the show. Sadly, it is children, who don’t yet have the life experience and perspective to adequately process a romanticized suicide drama, who consumed 13 Reasons in the highest numbers, and who took its dark, depressing messages to heart.
When a film or TV series centers entirely on high school-aged children for its storytelling, it is high school and middle school-aged children who feel most emotionally connected to the characters. Grown-ups don’t put themselves in the place of high schoolers; but other children do. And even the research commissioned by Netflix and conducted by Northwestern University about the societal impact of 13 Reasons Why demonstrated how much stronger the emotional connection to the characters was for children aged 13-18 than for adults.
In its first season, 13 Reasons Why made no effort whatsoever to provide a positive resource for those struggling with depression. The worst human behavior — the bullying and sexual assault — was depicted in graphic form, and the lead character took her own life as a result. There was no effort to offer a semblance of hope or redemption; there was no public service angle that provided guidance for viewers struggling with depression; there was no phone number to a hotline where people could find help.
For these reasons, Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education – whom Netflix had contacted prior to airing the series – advised Netflix not to show the program. “But that wasn’t an option. That was made very clear to me. And although [13 Reasons Why] has created a conversation about suicide, it’s not the right conversation,” Reidenberg says, voicing concerns that teens will see suicide as a glamorous solution for their problems, as the show’s protagonist does. In short, Netflix ignored the very expert they consulted…with tragic results for teens.
In the run-up to season two, Netflix has desperately engaged in damage control, adding a “warning video” and “aftershow” with discussions about the program, and resources such as suicide hotline phone numbers, to 13 Reasons Why. Yet even now, it continues to market the first season to teenagers – while still rating the program TV-MA (mature audiences only).
A public service announcement about the program, currently airing before the first season episodes, acknowleges as much:
Dylan Minnette: “ Hi, I’m Dylan Minnette and I play Clay Jensen.”
Katherine Langford: “I’m Katherine Langford and I play Hannah Baker.”
Justin Prentice: “I’m Justin Prentice, I play Bryce Walker.”
Alicia Bowe: “I’m Alicia Bowe, I play Jessica Davis. ”
Justin: “13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real world issues; taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. ”
Katherine: “By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation.”
Alicia: “But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you. Or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult.”
Dylan: “And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust; call a local helpline, or go to 13ReasonsWhy.info.”
Alicia: “Because the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier.”
On-Screen Message: ”If you or someone you know needs help finding crisis resources, visit 13ReasonsWhy.Info”
But while the 13ReasonsWhy.Info website provides a list of resources, including counselors, mental health experts, and suicide prevention sites…yet, at the bottom of the webpage, there is a disclaimer stating that “Netflix does not endorse any of the organizations or health professionals listed herein.”
We can understand why some people are supportive of 13 Reasons Why. It is a powerful drama, which does raise important questions. But we also see the harm that can – and has – come from marketing such a dark, depressing program directly to children, while bypassing parents and without adequate safeguards.
Ultimately, there was no message of hope in 13 Reasons Why. The message was one of despair…and teens listened. Had there been a message of hope, several teenagers might still be alive today.
The PTC was one of the first to warn parents about 13 Reasons Why. Over the past year, we have pushed Netflix very, very hard for positive changes, and we are gratified to see that Netflix has already adopted a few of our recommendations; but we do not think they have gone nearly far enough, and we will keep pushing for even stronger protections…Because Our Children Are Watching.