When Netflix announced that we’d be getting a second season of the hit series 13 Reasons Why (based on the novel by Jay Asher), fans were excited to see where creators would take the powerful storyline; other viewers who work in the mental health field — like myself — felt some apprehension. In this new chapter of the series, how would the triggering subjects spotlighted in 13 Reasons Why be handled?
Season 1 viewers were moved by the raw exploration of themes that we are all too familiar with in our own lives: sexual assault, suicide, cyberbullying, and substance abuse, to name a few. The show’s popularity among young viewers — who could understandably relate to the characters’ experiences — even led a group of researchers from the University of San Diego to find that “the volume of internet searches for suicide” spiked after 13RW‘s premiere. This prompted the American Association of Suicidology to issue a press release asking Netflix to develop “additional warnings before each episode to share relevant crisis and intervention services.” Their urgency stemmed from copious evidence that speaks to the “copycat effect” that arises when suicide is presented frequently and graphically in media.
The graphic content in 13RW might be too heavy for some teens to adequately process, which is why parental supervision with this series — as with anything that teens do, watch, or listen to — is fundamental. In the same press release, the American Association of Suicidology wrote that “direct, non-judgmental conversations with youth about mental health, suicide, hope, and recovery have positive effects that last throughout the lifespan.”
As a mental health professional, I value the content offered by 13 Reasons Why, and I am convinced that it can be a great conversation starter. However, I also believe that it is a parent or guardian’s job to know how to start these conversations.
Before going into Season 2, here are topics I recommend parents talk to their teens about — without judgement or restriction.
1The importance of consent
Season 1 graphically depicted numerous incidents of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, representing realities that countless women around the world have addressed in the #MeToo movement. As the story continues to unfold, we will see how characters cope with the sexual violence that now must be acknowledged in their community. This will also give parents opportunities to discuss sexual consent, and why consent is vital.
It’s important to speak about consent as early and as frequently as possible. Talk to your child about what consent looks like. Tell them they have ownership over their bodies, that they are allowed to voice their “no’s” whenever they don’t feel comfortable with something. At the same time, encourage them to ask for consent when they are initiating sexual encounters.
We witnessed an extremely graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide at the end of Season 1, and then were left questioning whether another character had attempted suicide. Addressing suicide with your child may be very uncomfortable and intimidating — but it’s also incredibly important. In fact, opening up discussions about why a person might experience suicidal thoughts and how they can get help — always from a non-judgmental perspective — can be a protective factor that helps prevent suicide in young people.
It’s important to address the issue of substance abuse in teens — something we see 13RW characters battle. Substance abuse can be very dangerous for teens’ brain development — in addition to deadly overdoses and drunk driving accidents — and peer pressure doesn’t make it any easier for kids to avoid alcohol and drugs. Rather than simply telling your children that drinking and doing drugs are against the rules (because we all know what happens when teens are “forbidden” from doing something), actually talk to them about the dangers of substance abuse. Have an evidence-based conversation about the risky consequences.
Over half of young people experience cyberbullying at one point in their lives, and cyberbullying contributed to Hannah’s decision to take her own life. The research shows that most kids enduring cyberbullying won’t tell their parents, making it even more difficult to talk about.
Instead, parents can begin an ongoing conversation to show their kids how to become someone who stands up for other people. These conversations can also help kids understand why it’s so difficult to speak up when they witness cyberbullying. It’s important to teach them how every person involved in social media harassment — even bystanders — creates a horrible domino effect that worsens the impact of cyberbullying on the victim. Teach your kids how to be game-changers by speaking up and doing their part to end cyberbullying.
513RW is fiction
One of the most important conversations to have with teens is that, yes, realistic events inspired the book — but it’s still a work of fiction. Why is this important to clarify? Due to the nature of the adolescent brain, teen viewers might have a hard time separating reality from fiction. If they relate to one of the themes or topics explored in the series, they might begin to adopt the character’s decisions and attitudes as their own.
The benefit of fiction is that it lets us wonder, “what could happen if…” Characters’ interactions, dialogues, and scenes can be teachable moments. One might ask their child, “What would you do if you were in this scene? How could you help a vulnerable character? Why do you think characters are behaving this way?”
When we help young people imagine these hypothetical scenarios, we are inadvertently helping them develop an internal compass to navigate similar situations.
In my practice, parents often ask me if they should let their kids watch the show. This is what I say: It’s up to you if your kids watch 13 Reasons Why, but in my opinion, all parents should watch it to familiarize themselves with its subject matter.
It is impossible for parents or guardians to shield their kids from every dangerous influence presented in the media. So what they can do — and what is tremendously helpful to do — is use popular media as a platform to foster meaningful conversations with their kids. Each conversation enriches the emotional toolbox that children and teens need to access when facing the harsh realities of the world.
13 Reason Why Season 2 premieres on Netflix on May 18th.