Let me just say at the start that I am writing this as a mom, not as an expert in psychology (but I do think that moms are experts in their own right). I watched the first season of 13 Reasons Why after my daughter told me about it. This unsolicited advice to Netflix and Selena Gomez comes after many discussions with my teenage children and their friends, and my friends as well. I mention Selena Gomez specifically because she is an executive producer of the show and is very passionate about this project, but also because she has personal experience with depression, has a huge platform for discussion, and she is an actual human being (unlike Netflix) who clearly genuinely cares about what she is doing and how it affects people.
In case you aren't familiar with the series, it is about a teenage girl (Hannah Baker) who prepares for her own suicide by recording a taped message that is directed to each of the 13 people that she holds responsible for her impending death. On the surface, it appeared to me to be a morbid and dangerous story of revenge with the ultimate punishment from the grave. But there is more to it than that. There are clearly lessons to be learned. I can appreciate what 13 Reasons Why was trying to accomplish. And they did. Parents, children, educators, counselors; we are all having the suicide conversation. That was the goal, right? Mission accomplished. So does a second show have a purpose besides entertainment? Surely suicide isn't entertainment. That has a dystopian feel to it.
Here are my 13 reasons why I think Netflix and Selena Gomez need to reconsider moving forward with season 2 of their hit show, 13 Reasons Why. The first one was the biggest reason, until I discovered more.
1. A teenage girl in my community, Priscilla, committed suicide within hours of watching the last episode of 13 Reasons Why. Students from at least two local high schools were reeling with her loss. I drove my daughter and a friend to and from the funeral and watched as huddled masses of teenagers dressed in black hugged each other with puffy eyes. If this happened once in my small town, how many more losses are connected to the series that have not been reported across the country? And even if, miraculously, that hasn't happened anywhere else, isn't the loss of one child to suicide following the show one too many?
2. Maybe I am being like Hannah Baker and blaming everyone else for something that might have happened anyway. But first and most importantly, it might also not have happened. Second, I'm not necessarily blaming Netflix for Priscilla's death (though many do) but I am saying that one graphic show gets the conversation going on bullying, sexual assault, depression, and suicide. But the second show is happening because the first one got good ratings - and then it starts to feel like someone is capitalizing on suicide.
3. Speaking of Hannah Baker, she was lucky enough in her storyline to have loving, caring parents whom she felt (inexplicably) unable to turn to for help. But in real life when the letters come home from middle school discussing 13 Reasons Why, they specifically tell parents to watch the show with their children and then discuss it together because it is difficult to process and might glorify suicide. For many of the children in our society who might be contemplating suicide, there are no loving parents to watch the show with, to ask for help, or to discuss their feelings with. It seems that those children would be the most at-risk.
4. Every teenage girl I know who has watched the show has described feeling depressed and "not right" after watching the show, sometimes taking weeks to recover. That is how teenage girls who are not dealing with depression feel. How about those who are suffering
from depression? How do they feel when the series is over? It is possible they might not recover at all.
5. Under the very best of circumstances, the series is hard to watch. And that is ok for most of us. Some realities are certainly hard to watch and that doesn't mean we should ignore them or pretend they don't exist. But for a teenager (whose brain isn't fully developed emotionally anyway) who is suffering from depression, the show leads to the conclusion that suicide is a viable option. Yes, they show how terrible it is and how hard it is on those left behind, but suicide is undeniably presented as an option.
6. Binge watching 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why is not recommended. And despite the fact that everyone recommends you watch the episodes one at a time to give yourself time to process what just happened, that isn't how kids watch Netflix. They sit and they binge watch - all 13 episodes in one or two days. One weekend is all it takes. It is just too much for a child, or really a person of any age, to take in all at once.
7. I did not see enough warnings. It is my understanding that Netflix added a viewer warning at the very beginning of the series to supplement the two warnings that were already in place before the most explicit of the episodes, the rape and the suicide. I fully expected and was actually surprised not to see viewer warnings and crisis line information at the beginning and end of every single episode. I never saw the words, "Suicide is not a viable option." I don't know why.
8. Netflix gave the series a "TV-MA" rating. That is a mature audience rating for television that may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17. Then who is their audience? Not even half of the teenagers in high school are 17 and over. And we know that middle schoolers are watching. I love Netflix as much as the next person and I use their services but it is a problem (particularly in a case like this with a program that specifically attracts children) that there is no way for them to monitor who is actually watching their programs. Yes, I know it is a parent's responsibility to do that, but I refer you back to reason number 3 about the children who are watching that don't have parents to help them navigate. Please also see reasons 4-7.
9. As I was writing this blog, there was a news story by Frank Somerville on KTVU news discussing the girl I mentioned above, Priscilla, as well as another child, Bella, who had taken her own life, both within hours or days of watching the final episode of 13 Reasons Why. So now, in my little corner of the world, we have two confirmed instances of teenage girls taking irreversible action on their feelings of depression after watching the series. Is it possible those are the only two? That seems extremely unlikely.
10. According to the news story, Netflix has, thus far, refused to speak to either of the parents of the children who took their own lives, despite repeated requests. They simply put out a statement to express their condolences as well as their dedication to moving forward with Season 2. How can they responsibly move forward with another season of the show without at least listening to the concerns of the parents of these teenage girls who can no longer speak for themselves?
11. What, exactly, would a second season hope to accomplish? Will they have a season about a boy who commits a violent attack on the students at his high school as was foreshadowed in the last season? Then are we having a different conversation that needs to be had? I don't think so. We see that play out in the news often enough that a dramatization is entirely unnecessary under the guise of education and discussion. We live in a country where, sadly, even our little first graders know what a lockdown drill is. Another suicide (which was reported at the end of the first season)? See reasons 1 through 13 why we don't need that.
12. Given the fact that Netflix is aware of the suicides that I mentioned above, and the fact that the parents of both children blame the series (as reported on the KTVU news segment), it seems a second season is kind of a slap in the face to the family and friends of those girls. They have suffered the ultimate loss and I am certain they would want to spare other families the same heartache. Personally, I can say that my daughter is both furious and disgusted that a second season is forthcoming following the loss of her friend.
13. Through their communication it is clear that Netflix believes their series is doing more good than harm. One has to wonder if they would hold that same belief if someone close in their circle took their own life after watching the series. Netflix has officially been put on notice through multiple sources that some people believe their series caused suicides. Perhaps they will realize that since they have been put on notice - they are setting themselves up for a lawsuit if they move forward. Once a company is put on notice that they may have actually caused harm and they do nothing to make changes, I am pretty sure their liability for subsequent harm increases significantly. Maybe that will be enough? I hope with all of my being that they don't wait for the loss of another young life.
Thank you for reading. Please share with your friends and perhaps this will make its way to someone at Netflix with authority and compassion and/or to Selena Gomez.
The loss of a child is unimaginable and I send my heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Priscilla and Bella.
Thank you to Crisis Text Line for the use of their jpeg with contact information and for all they do. Thank you to Frank Somerville at KTVU News for his ongoing, heartfelt news stories.