For several weeks, I’ve been planning to write a piece about "13 Reasons Why", the viral Netflix series that has swept the country's teens. The riveting series is based on the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, and it tells the tragic story of Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who commits suicide and posthumously sends cassette tapes to 13 people whom she holds accountable for her decision to end her life. The series finale includes a graphic scene that shows Hannah’s suicide, and throughout the series, there are scenes that depict sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.
There have been plenty of excellent think pieces written about this series. The major points include:
- The risks of depicting a graphic suicide scene --which goes directly against the guidelines for how to report suicide in the media – and can risk triggering kids with suicidal ideation to possibly try a copycat suicide.
- The benefits of creating a series that truly reflects many serious issues facing kids at school – bullying, rape culture, slut shaming, stalking, revenge, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety, intimidation, victim-blaming by adults and kids, and managing social pressure.
- The risks of portraying the “suicide as revenge” theory, which plays into many dark teenage fantasies about “making others sorry” after you are gone. There is quite a bit of glorification portrayed in this series, especially when some of the kids who bullied Hannah display signs of regret or guilt after listening to the tapes.
- The benefits of getting parents and teachers to talk, talk, talk with students about what they think about the series (love these questions by Bully Boot Camp).
What concerns me is that -- in thinking from our perspective as adults who want to create good teachable moments -- we may be missing the reality of how many kids are reacting to the series, especially the younger teens in middle school.
While we are busy composing emotionally intelligent lists of all the excellent questions to ask our kids, many of them are moving on, desensitized already to the horrors of Hannah’s life, reducing the series to something as trivial as a game called "13 Reasons Why" on Snapchat.
In this game, a student posts something on a Snapchat Story along the lines of: “Send me a number between 1 and 13, and I’ll let you know if you get a tape.”
“What does it mean?” I asked several teenagers.
Seventh and eighth graders explained that, “If they say ‘yes’ – meaning you would get a tape – then they are saying they hate you or they would blame you if they committed suicide. It’s a new way to tell people that you don’t like them.” The message of the series is being co-opted into just another way to be unkind to others.
In working closely with middle schoolers as part of my bullying prevention trainings, I’ve learned that for every kid that has a parent who wants to watch and dissect the series together, there is another kid who is completely missing the talking points. What particularly worries me about this Snapchat game is that it really emphasizes how the “suicide as revenge” narrative is one of the biggest unhealthy ideas that kids are taking away from the series.
Kids watch the series and they see how the people that wronged Hannah are now struggling to sleep, suffering nightmares, and experiencing intense anxiety, which leads kids to believe that Hannah’s suicide truly did trigger remorse, guilt, and pain in the people who received a tape.
The disturbing reality is that the people who honestly suffer after a suicide are the closest family members of the victim, not the bullies who contributed to the feelings of depression that led the victim to take such drastic action.
When I was researching my book on bullying, I found too many examples of students who felt almost NO remorse. Time and again, following suicides, we even see horrible online comments such as, “Glad u are gone” or “Better off without u.” As blunt and disgusting as this is, it's a reality, and it’s important for teens to realize how misleading the series can be, because we must discourage the idea that suicide is a successful option to make others feel sorry. In all of our think pieces, we need to get down to the nitty gritty of how kids are behaving.
As I told my own teenage daughter, with whom I watched the series, “The reality is that ten years from now, the guilty teens that are tearfully flooding to place flowers at Hannah’s locker will have moved on. They will be living their lives. They may occasionally think with regret or guilt about what they did to Hannah, but it will not stop them from having jobs, having relationships, living in the world. And Hannah? Where will Hannah be?”
“Hannah will still be dead,” my daughter said softly. “Not a good revenge.”
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