The second season of the teen series 13 Reasons Why will be online tomorrow night. Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes outlines what you need to know – because your teen will be watching this show.
Content warning: This post contains discussions of mental health and suicide.
Last year, The Spinoff Parents heard from a number of parents concerned about the impact of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why on their child. The series is based on the 2007 young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher and tells the story of teenage high school students Clay Jensen and his friend Hannah Baker.
In a graphic scene Hannah suicides in a bath tub after suffering through a horrific rape, revenge porn, bullying, and peer pressure. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details 13 reasons why she ended her life.
Because it’s always better to hear directly from teenagers about how they’re feeling about a particular piece of media, we asked Auckland teenager Bree Brown to share her views. She wrote that the series was “dangerously wrong” about teen suicide, and she wasn’t alone.
As Bree wrote so eloquently (in an opinion backed up by mental health experts):
“The main failing of this show is that it continues to perpetuate the idea that suicide is a direct result of a person or an event. For years, experts have emphasised that suicide is always a culmination of many causes, and almost always those who suicide have severe mental health issues. Having someone suicide and then make tapes blaming other people for her death makes it seem like suicide is caused by one specific thing.”
“The issue of suicide as revenge is also a very worrying theme of the show. For Hannah, it’s as if she died just so that she could get the last word on those she felt did wrong by her when she was alive. This sends a message to the show’s very young and easily-influenced audience that this is the only way to confront those who have hurt you. It suggests it is an understandable, even fair, response to being hurt by someone.”
You should definitely read Bree’s post in full, but she ended her thoughtful piece with this good advice: Teens need to see how many places they can go to feel safe and how many ways they can feel safer if they just ask for help. Organisations like Youthline, RainbowYOUTH, Lifeline and Sticks n Stones are all dedicated to helping young adults through the same situations that Hannah experienced in 13 Reasons Why.
When the first season aired Shaun Robinson from the NZ Mental Health Foundation suggested 13 ways you can start a conversation with young people about the issues raised in the show.
His points are still extremely important: “We need to have open, honest and informed conversations about these really challenging topics and be prepared to keep talking about them. We need conversations that help people to understand that suicide is preventable, that we each have the power to help those in need and that most people who feel suicidal will go on to recover and lead great lives.”
Now that we have the context of the first series out of the way, let’s consider the second. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those mummy bloggers who gets free shit so I wasn’t sent a screener (and I pay for my Netflix). I haven’t seen it and I can’t pass judgement. What I can tell you is this:
The Office of Film and Literature Classification consulted with the Mental Health Foundation in classifying 13 Reasons Why season 2 as RP18, with a warning that it contains rape, suicide themes, drug use and bullying.
“There is a strong focus on rape and suicide in Season 2, as there was in Season 1. We have told Netflix it is really important to warn NZ audiences about that,” says Chief Censor David Shanks.
“Rape is an ugly word for an ugly act. But young New Zealanders have told us that if a series contains rape – they want to know beforehand.”
An RP18 classification means that someone under 18 must be supervised by a parent or guardian when viewing the series. A guardian is considered to be a responsible adult (18 years and over), for example a family member or teacher who can provide guidance.
“This classification allows young people to access it in a similar fashion to the first season, while requiring the support from an adult they need to stay safe and to process the challenging topics in the series,” David Shanks explains.
The Chief Censors Office has been quick on the mark on this one – and it’s got a lot of helpful advice for parents and caregivers. Here’s the crux of it (including advice from teen counsellors and mental health experts):
Watch it with your children, or at the very least around the same time
Your child will likely want to binge-watch the series. If you can do anything to stop them doing this, that’s a good idea. If not – encourage breaks. Encourage discussion between episodes. If you can, watch it with them – that is what the RP18 warning is for.
This piece about the last season is still applicable: 13 ways you can start a conversation with young people about the issues raised in the show.
How did the show make you feel? is still a great first question. The show is confronting and is designed to hit you hard. What did it bring up for you? Are there issues raised in the show that you need to talk to someone about? Did the show make you think about suicide? That last question is really important to ask yourself and others. If it did, then please reach out and tell someone. We know that some people become suicidal when they watch shows like this. It’s not abnormal, but it does mean you need some extra support and you deserve to get it.
For parents and caregivers who don’t have time to watch the entire series, the Classification Office and Mental Health Foundation have produced an episode-by-episode guide with synopses of problematic content, and conversation starters to have with teens. This will be available on both organisations’ websites from 7pm on tomorrow (Friday) night.
Have a conversation
A face-to-face conversation might be challenging, so one idea shared by a teen counsellor is to have a car ride after watching – that way you can talk without eye contact. You could go and get a treat together and park up somewhere to talk so it feels private and you’re on neutral territory. In the words of the kids – be chill. If your child tells you something that stresses you out, save the processing of it for later when you’re not with them. They need to know it’s safe to talk to you.
You could also buy them a diary and have a two-way discussion by writing. That may feel less intimidating for them.
Don’t be a dick
Don’t be dismissive of the show – it may be interpreted as being dismissive of the feelings of your child. Around one in five young New Zealanders will have experienced a mental health problem in the last year; one in three girls and one in seven boys will have been subjected to a sexual assault. Devastatingly, your child might be one of them. We don’t ever want to think of this as parents – but if the worst was to happen, surely we all want our children to be able to tell us what’s going on. They’ll only do that if they feel respected.
Your child may not be impacted at all by the themes of the show, but that’s still no reason to be a dick. Imagine your favourite thing – and then imagine someone you respect and admire trashing it. It sucks. Don’t do that to your kid – whether it’s a favourite band, favourite song, favourite actress or TV show.
Do your research
Read up before tomorrow and be mentally prepared for tough conversations. Those choice-as folks at the Office of Film and Literature Classification have produced a helpful parent guide, Challenging Media Content: Talking with young people about what they’re watching and videos featuring youth health advocate Dr Sue Bagshaw with advice on how to talk to young people about a range of topics, including suicide and bullying.
- Can you recognise the warning signs that your teenager is struggling?
- How to get your teenager to open up to you
- What teenagers wish their parents knew
Good luck! It’s tough parenting teens but not nearly as hard as actually being a teen. And remember – you don’t have to be a parent to encourage teenagers to open up to you. This is a job for aunties, uncles, older siblings, and family members and friends: we all have a role to play in supporting our young people through teenage-hood. Be the person you wish you had in your life when you were a teen yourself.