Bingeing on a television show is a common practice now for many people, especially with online streaming services such as Netflix releasing entire series at once.
While extended television viewing may not be the healthiest pastime, it becomes worrisome when the viewers are teens and the show being watched is one covering intense or controversial topics.
“13 Reasons Why” is a recent Netflix hit that has raised concerns with Peninsula School District administrators. A letter sent home May 5 to middle and high school families from lead counselor Becky Maffei outlined several concerns from the district.
“We are concerned about the popularity of this show and its potential effects on youth for several reasons,” Maffei said in the letter. “The way that suicide is presented in the series goes against all established media guidelines meant to decrease the likelihood of copycat cases.”
Concerns for the show include the portrayal of suicide as a “quasi-rational response,” the possible glorification and romanticization of suicide and the depiction of adults in the series as absent or ineffectual in response to vulnerable teens.
The main concern is when kids are watching things and reacting to them without an opportunity to talk to an adult about it…their reactions may take them in a direction where they need support (and) they may not have that support they need (when viewing alone).
Becky Maffei, Peninsula School District lead counselor
“13 Reasons Why” was released March 31 on Netflix. It is based on the 2007 book of the same name written by Jay Asher. The story revolves around high school student Clay Jensen in the wake of the suicide of classmate and friend Hannah Baker. The story follows Clay as he receives 13 mysterious tapes, all recorded by Hannah, who uses each tape to tell of a different incident that contributed to her decision to end her life.
The show is rated TV-MA and recommended viewing is for ages 17 and older, though many of the shows most popular viewers have been much younger.
The goal of the letter, Maffei said, was not to prohibit the show or stop students from viewing it, but rather to encourage parents to interact with their children and be aware of some of the concerning themes.
“The main concern is when kids are watching things and reacting to them without an opportunity to talk to an adult about it … their reactions may take them in a direction where they need support (and) they may not have that support they need (when viewing alone),” she explained. “I think asking kids about it, if they’ve watched it (and) what did they think about it? If they related to it, (then) what where those things they related to? I think it’s a good opportunity to listen to kids and see what’s going on.”
She added that the show can provide a great learning opportunity, for teens and for adults, to talk about sensitive subjects such as bullying, suicide and self-harm.
It was never our intention to say that the show has no value or to recommend that kids not see it. But we just wanted to give parents more information to consider and to encourage their participation when their students view it.
Kathy Weymiller, Director of Community Outreach
Checking in with teens and keeping tabs on what they’re watching is important to stay up-to-date with subjects important to them, said Kathy Weymiller, director of community outreach for the district.
“It was never our intention to say that the show has no value or to recommend that kids not see it,” Weymiller said. “But we just wanted to give parents more information to consider and to encourage their participation when their students view it.”
With summer break coming up, there is a growing concern that vulnerable students will be more isolated and with less available resources for help or support. Exposure to intense topics can be detrimental to students already suffering from depression or other mental health concerns.
“I think certainly a lot of kids are more isolated over the summer. I think a lot of kids are home alone watching TV all day,” Maffei said. “If they’re doing that in isolation, I think parents definitely want to make sure that they know what it is they are watching.”
The portrayal of adults in the show, both parents and school figures, as absent, uninterested or incompetent, also raises concerns with the school district.
“I think at times that most kids think that most adults don’t listen to them or understand them,” Maffei said. “In the show, the kids reach out and the adults don’t listen to them or understand them. We don’t want kids to watch that show and think that it’s pointless to reach out.”
I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad show. I just think people need to be aware of what it is (and), as a parent especially, that your kids are getting the right message around it.
This is where parents can engage teens on the show, either by watching it with them or asking them about the show and talking about some of the intense subject matter. Providing a communication pathway and open discussion can do a lot to support teens, Maffei said, even those who are not suffering from mental health issues but may have questions or concerns about the show.
Reminding teens of support services — all school counselors have training in suicide prevention — and that they are surrounded by caring adults, both at home and at school, is always a good conversations for parents to have, Maffei added.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad show. I just think people need to be aware of what it is (and), as a parent especially, that your kids are getting the right message around it,” she said. “There are certainly things that kids easily relate to in it ... if that is coupled with positive conversations about it, that could be a positive thing.”
Parents concerned about their teens or looking for more information are encouraged to contact their child’s school counselor. Help can also be found through the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), or text “START” to 741741, the Pierce County Crisis Line at 253-396-5180 or Teen Link, for teen to teen help, at 866teenlink.org or 866-833-6546.
A suicide prevention and awareness event is being planned for Sept. 10 in Gig Harbor by the Gig Harbor Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition, a local group that can also provide resources for parents and teens.