Why My Kid Won't Be Watching '13 Reasons Why' & Its Dangerous Message

13 Reasons Why NetflixBeth Dubber/Netflix

When I heard Jay Asher's bestseller 13 Reasons Why would soon be hitting Netflix, I poked around in my attic for my copy of the book and slid it onto my daughter's bookshelf. She's 11, almost 12, and I had a feeling she'd likely be asking if she could stream the show sometime soon. She sped through the story of Hannah Baker's suicide and the cassette tapes she left behind, finishing the book off in less than two days. But when she came asking to tune in on Netflix, I had to break the bad news: You can't watch 13 Reasons Why

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Because of the serious subject matter, I previewed the show and decided it wasn't one my tween should see. Yes, even though she's read the book. 

Though the book also tells the story of a teenager's suicide, follows most of the same characters, and includes some disturbing details about what happens to Hannah along the way, there are stark differences. 

Chief among them: Hannah's suicide on screen is incredibly detailed and drawn out, forcing viewers to take in everything. Rules that dictate how journalists should report on suicide warn against graphic details of how it happens because it increases the chances of suicide contagion, the very real incidence of people exposed to suicide doing it themselves. 

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A show that's aimed at teenagers, a group that is already prone to suggestibility in ways that older people are not, should not be amping up the risk factors. 

That scene alone is one that gave me pause, along with graphic rape scenes. 

This may seem odd. After all, I allowed her to read a book about a teen who was raped and committed suicide, a book that I had read myself and knew was going to include difficult themes. 

But I've always remembered something once said to me by Katherine Paterson, former ambassador for young people's literature for the Library of Congress. Paterson wrote The Bridge to Terabithia, another novel for kids that includes the death of a child. I interviewed her years ago, for a website that's long since been defunct, about the dark subject matter she includes in some of her novels, and I asked how she compared that to violence on TV or in video games. 

Her response was that when children read a book, they must use their imaginations to help paint a picture of the action, whereas with a movie or video game, the action can go well beyond what a child can imagine. In other words: Age and experience tend to limit what a child takes from a book, but that's not necessarily true of something like a Netflix series. 

When I handed my daughter the book, I knew that she would be reading about something difficult. I also knew it was a topic that she could handle, at least as far as her imagination could take her, and it was a topic we couldn't delay any longer. 

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We need to start talking about it now because while she's at an age when suicide is the third most common cause of death (this is true for the 10 to 24 age bracket), most parents don't talk about suicide. If mine did, I don't remember it.

What I do remember is the day I got a call from my cousin. She asked if I was sitting down.

She told me that earlier that day one of my best childhood friends had committed suicide.

I was 19.

He was 21.

I'd been just a few thousand feet away, sitting in my office, when it happened. For years, I blamed myself. I still struggle with guilt over the last few months of his life. 

His life and death were nothing like Hannah Baker's, and yet watching the series, I was struck with horror by the way drawing the book out into hour-long episode after hour-long episode made me feel like the show was attempting to justify suicide, to make it appear as though it was something a teenager was "driven to," a direct cause and effect. 

There are suicide risk factors parents should know about, warning signs parents should look for. 

But no one is driven to suicide, nor is there any one direct cause. As a statement from the National Association of School Psychologists points out: 

The series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses. Suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.

There's also something about the show's long, drawn-out process of revisiting Hannah's life in 13 tapes that makes it seem less like a heartbreaking story of a desperate teenager and more like a game of revenge. 

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Perhaps it's Hannah's glib tone, the way she talks about her bullies as if she's constructed the ultimate eff you to respond to their behavior. 

Suicide is not revenge. Suicide is not about someone else. That romanticized narrative is dangerous for kids who are already in a naturally narcissistic stage of life, and who are struggling with their independence and ability to deal with the people who anger them. This show has provided them with a fantasy, wherein suicide ends with your name on everyone's lips and the people who hurt you being punished. 

But it's just that -- fantasy. There's no coming back from suicide. There's no winning. When someone has killed herself, she is gone, and the people who love her are destroyed.

Currently schools across the nation are sending letters home to parents, warning them about the show. My daughter's school hasn't done so, but I don't need it to. I've seen the show. My daughter won't be watching ... at least not now. 

Maybe she will when she's older and better able to separate fact from fiction, more adept at handling very real, in-your-face graphic scenes. But for now, the book has done what it needed to do. It's opened up a conversation about a very important topic in our home, one that I hope other parents are having with their own kids. 

 

If you or someone you know needs support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386, or text "START" to 741-741.

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