Published on September 22, 2017

Should you let your teen watch “13 Reasons”?Should you let your teen watch “13 Reasons”?

When the show 13 Reasons Why debuted in late March, it created a storm of controversy. The Netflix original series is about a high school girl named Hannah Baker who takes her own life. Before she does so, in a graphic three-minute-long real-time segment in the last episode of the season, she mails a package of videos with the 13 reasons why she decided she no longer wanted to live. On each side of the seven videos she blames a different person for her death.

The people behind the series, including executive producer Selena Gomez, believed that they were helping troubled people by showing how harmful high school life can be. The overall message is that people should be nicer to each other and listen more closely to what each is saying.

But the way in which the show portrayed suicide was troubling to many, including child psychiatrist Bart Main, MD at the Cape Cod Healthcare Centers for Behavioral Health.

“When it came out, it was quite controversial with families that I see and families that I know personally and I spoke out vehemently against it,” Dr. Main said. “The justification and then illustration of suicide are both really, really destructive.”

A group of concerned researchers decided to test the debate over whether the series was harmful by examining how internet searches changed, both in volume and content after it was released. Using Google Trends, they examined search engines from the date of the series debut, March 31, 2017 through April 18, 2017.

The end date was chosen so their estimates would not be affected by the suicide of former football player Aaron Hernandez on April 19. They then compared the results to Google searches from January 15 to March 30 of the same year.

The resulting study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine at the end of July, showed that all suicide queries were 19 percent higher during the 19 days following the series debut, with rates ranging from 15 percent higher to 44 percent higher depending on the day.

While the authors of the study note that searches relating to suicide hotline numbers (21 percent rise) and suicide prevention (23 percent rise) went up indicating the show elevated suicide awareness, they were concerned that the searches for the term “how to commit suicide” (26 percent higher) were all significantly higher in the days following the series release than they were in the months preceding it.

“If the effect of the series is that people who are really in distress would be more likely to reach out and get help, that would be terrific,” Dr. Main said. “On the other hand, if the effect is here’s an example of a person who tried to reach out and the people she reached out to were not responsive, and that discourages people from reaching out, that would be disastrous.”

Watch It With Your Child

In the last episode of the season, Hannah Baker does, in fact, reach out to her high school guidance counselor and he does not offer her the help she needs. That scene reflects the reality of many people in crisis, according to Dr. Main.

“About 80 percent of people who die by suicide have had contact with some sort of helping professional in the couple of months before they died,” he said. “It’s really scary and it is because we’re not listening well. I think it’s partly because we’re busy, but partly because we’re in denial.”

It is important to note that the criticism of 13 Reasons Why doesn’t imply that people shouldn’t talk about suicide. Talking about it in a non-sensational way is actually one of the most effective means of prevention, according to the National Alliance of Suicide Prevention.

As much as Dr. Main wishes that 13 Reasons Why was never produced, now that it is part of the culture and creating a buzz, it will be hard for parents to ensure that their adolescent children aren’t exposed to it. It was the most tweeted television show of 2017 and producers are already filming season two, which will be released next year.

If your adolescent expresses curiosity about the show, the best thing to do it to watch the series with your child, Dr. Main said. He also advised hitting pause and discussing anything disturbing or intense that is happening on the screen. Parents should engage their teenager’s intellect to pull them out of the drama so they aren’t so powerfully impacted by it.

Questions Dr. Main advised asking:

  • What is the effect of the music on the mood of this scene?
  • What is the effect of the lighting on the mood of this scene?
  • What does that character’s body language suggest?
  • Why is the main character so attractive?
  • Why did the writers tell this story this way?

“The power of drama is often in its pacing and in the background music,” Dr. Main said. “It’s subliminal. If the adolescent can step out of the drama and realize they are being manipulated, we know adolescents are very resistant to being manipulated. That’s their nature. You can use that in your favor if you can elicit it.”

Importance of Mentors

The series won’t have any deleterious impact on most adolescents, but it could be harmful to teenagers suffering from depression or who become morbidly fascinated with the show, Dr. Main said. Those kids should be in psychotherapy.

The best way to build psychological resiliency in adolescents is to ensure kids have mentors who can provide the appropriate resources for emotional support, Dr. Main said. Their peers are not usually the best choice. A coach, favorite teacher, guidance counselor, aunt, uncle, or any other adult they trust is what helps teens in risky situations survive them and thrive.

“The lack of communication between this girl and appropriate resources should dismay us,” he said. “Open lines of communication, not just for suicide but for all of the issues that adolescents struggle with is really, really important for adolescents to be able to negotiate this time of their life successfully.”

Anyone who is experiencing emotional distress or contemplating suicide can find help here:

  • Crisis Text Line is free 24 hour a day, seven day a week crisis line. Text the word “start” to the number 741-714 and you will be connected to a volunteer counselor.
  • Department of Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team provides in person behavioral health assessments, interventions and stabilization 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-322-1356.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free counseling to those experiencing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-8255.
  • The Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands provides telephone counseling and support groups for those experiencing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts and their family members. Call 800-893-9900.
  • The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention by telephone, instant message or text for LGBTQ youth. Call 866-488-7386.