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Guest Post: How '13 Reasons Why' failed its viewers

Posted May 23
Updated May 24

A scene from "13 Reasons Why" (TV-MA) on Netflix. (Deseret Photo)

Editor's note: Douglas Price, a ninth-year educator serving at Voyager Academy in Durham as a sixth grade teacher, shares his concerns and recommendations for the hit show "13 Reasons Why."

"13 Reasons Why," Netflix’s breakout and controversial show, has everything going for it: a popular novel; a creator with experience telling stories about mental health issues;  and a young adult celebrity as an executive producer. None of these aforementioned caveats, however, hold as much weight than the fact that this story is timely and necessary.

Which is why it pains me to say that while it has everything going for it, "13 Reasons Why" has failed all of its viewers, most especially its young viewers.

No resources for those hurting

First, "13 Reasons Why" fails to provide the support it could have highlighted for those struggling with suicide, suicidal thoughts, rape, sexual assault or bullying. At minimal, the producers of this show should have provided a placard at the beginning or the end of each episode that focused on “how to get help” for those enduring bullying or entertaining thoughts of suicide.

Because, let’s face it, while this show is fictional, its situations are all too real. Sadly, bullying runs rampant in most, if not all, of the hallways of the middle and high schools of America. Teenagers being raped or assaulted (verbally and physically) is far too common in our society. Viewers, especially young viewers, need to know where they can turn to for guidance.

So, if you’re going to create a show that is so pinpoint specific to the time that our teenagers and young adults are living in, why would you not let them know that there is help? Unlike the show’s unintended message, suicide is not the only way out. Help is available.

'Media PTSD'

Second, "13 Reasons Why" opens up the door for creating what can only be called “media PTSD.” Research shows that watching images in news feed and on social media can contribute to symptoms of what others classify as post-traumatic stress disorder, mainly through the viewing of violent or disturbing content.

For those that have not viewed "13 Reasons Why," be forewarned: You will witness several moments of physical and sexual assault and verbal and sexual assault. You will view not one, but two young women being raped, and, more gruesomely, you will watch a graphic suicide scene. All of these moments (until recently) came with no trigger warnings, other than the rating itself: TV-MA, which leads to the third concern.

Despite rating, tweens, teens are watching

This show is based on a YA, or young adult, novel, yet the show has a hard TV-MA rating for mature audiences. It's difficult to imagine that producers were not aware of who would view this show the most: teenagers. When I returned from my spring break, I was shocked, almost to the point of tears, to learn that I had at least 10 sixth grade students, who are age 11-12, who had viewed this show.

To think that my students, who are just now coming to terms with knowing about concepts such as puberty and sex, viewed two characters being raped on screen is appalling and heartbreaking. It should be of note here that the average person is exposed to pornography around age 11. Imagine now that one of your first sexual imagery encounters is a rape scene from a show you were invested in.

None of those students will be able to forget those images, even if they tried. How did they handle it when they saw it? What emotions soared through their brains when they watched the captain of the basketball team pin down an individual, raping her, leaving bruises on her body in the aftermath? Could they even process the situation? With all that said, do they now have some form of “media PTSD” that we won’t see for years until another trigger occurs?

"13 Reasons Why" had everything going for it, but instead of recognizing the social responsibility that laid before it, it appears that being “prestige television” and “pushing the boundaries” was far more important in the creator's minds.

Multiple failures

"13 Reasons Why" is paradoxical, almost, in its failings. It fails to provide an outlet for those dealing, in real life, with similar situations. At the same time, it glamorizes and shocks its audience by forcing us to view the graphic nature of several events leading to the horrific suicide at the end of the show, forgetting to provide a safe place for individuals, who are dealing with the same issues in their own lives or just need a place to talk about what they saw.

It should be of note that "13 Reasons Why" will not be disappearing anytime soon. It was recently renewed for a second season. Currently, there is no indication of what this next season will focus on, but several characters have stories left open ended that could be explored, including Alex’s own suicide attempt or even Jessica coming to terms to with her own rape story.

How can we respond?

As this show gained momentum and a fan base through its younger viewers, school systems across the United States (including Wake County) sent out notes of warning to both students and parents, discouraging that they watch the show.

While that is all well intentioned, I think most would agree that it is counterproductive as it draws more attention to the problem and consequently draws more teenagers to do the opposite of what is recommended.

As an educator, one primary focal point should be partnerships with parents, providing them with resources on how to handle hard discussions that come from the viewing of a program like this. At my school, I'm working with our guidance counselor to create a forum for parents to ask their own questions about the show and how to respond if these same situations play out in real life.

Additionally, schools should prepare themselves to be open to discussing this show and what has been viewed with students who open up. Many students have expressed fear and anxiety about even telling their parents that they've seen the show. This already limits the outlets that students have to parse through their emotions and understanding of the show. Instead, they’re left with each other - students who are limited in scope of life experiences and limited in knowing how to properly respond. Teachers and school counselors, however, can intervene to help students equip themselves in becoming self advocates and better educated.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, those of us who are paying customers of Netflix’s streaming service should demand more responsibility from them. Writing to Netflix via email, Facebook, Twitter and other forums will help ring home the point to Netflix that they should take ownership of what their responsibility should be in continuing to stream this show. It’s not too late for them to post helpline information at the end of each episode.

If you or somebody you know needs help, please reach out.

Call or text the Raleigh-based HopeLine Crisis Line, which helps people across the country, at 919-231-4525 or 877-235-4525. HopeLine's crisis line is open 24 hours a day from Wednesday through Sunday and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday and Tuesday. The text line is available from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., weekdays.

You also can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433. Both are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Douglas Price is a ninth-year educator serving at Voyager Academy as a 6th grade teacher, where he has helped to develop an innovative curriculum entitled Core Connections. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master's degree of education from North Carolina State University. He is currently a Hope Street Group fellow for North Carolina and has participated in several other key fellowships throughout the state, including: Kenan Fellows, the Education Policy Fellowship Program through the NC Public Forum, and the NC Collaborative through Duke Research Clinical Institute.

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