My teenage son asked me a few weeks ago to let him watch the Netflix series sensation “13 Reasons Why”. All his friends watch it, he says, but with a “mature content” rating, he needs my permission – and my passcode. After a quick consultation with my husband, I agree to sit down with the boy and screen the show with him.
The series walks through thirteen recorded messages left behind by a high school junior girl who commits suicide. And when the ratings police label this content for mature audiences only, they are not kidding. I hear all the F-bombs. I watch all the drinking, smoking, fighting, and sex scenes. I cringe at the graphic displays of sexual assault and the final suicide laid out with nothing to the imagination. I don’t like an awful lot of what I see. You should know these painful scenes show up in full-blown-HD-in-your-face-color before you decide whether or not to view the show yourself.
I could give you a hundred reasons not to watch this series – too graphic, too controversial, too depressing. But as a mom and a minister of the gospel, here are thirteen reasons why I’m glad I watched with my kids:
- Both my teenagers agree that the show gives an accurate picture of life in high school these days. Can I tell you how disturbing that is for me? But if I want to relate to them, to help them negotiate the labyrinth of crazy-town and outright dangerous things going on in this R-rated culture of ours, then I’d better have my eyes wide open. To see what they see. I’m sure the show intensifies and exaggerates to some degree, but then so do teenage emotions. Even if we parse out facts and say things can’t be THAT bad, I think life often feels that bad to our kids. So I’m taking them at their word.
- I have a clearer picture of the real world “out there” where the people I minister to live. I can’t tell you how easy it is for us to live in our Christian bubbles where things are supposed to be safe and relatively sane. But our neighbors, friends, family members, and co-workers live in the kind of insanity that “13 Reasons Why” puts on display. And that world needs a whole lot of Jesus. If I’m going to bring Jesus to them, I’m going to need a reasonable idea of where they come from. Quick platitudes and catchy verse recitations won’t cut it in a world where teens and adults deal with the kind of world this show depicts.
- “13 Reasons Why” does a great job of showing the incredible pain suicide leaves behind instead of glorifying it as a solution. Most of the series focuses on a group of teens trying to manage the agony, chaos, and loss after the main character, Hannah, takes her own life. Nothing gets sugar coated here, and no problems really get solved because of Hannah’s choice. In the end, we’re left hopeful that things will change for the better for everyone involved in her life and her pain, but we don’t get to see it. All we see is the tragedy Hannah selfishly leaves in her wake when she chooses to end it all. A big-downside though – the final scenes can be described as a “how-to” for committing suicide and I find that irresponsible on the part of the producers. No one needs those images in their heads, least of all anyone in the remotest danger of considering such an act themselves.
- Bullying hurts, and our teens are as vulnerable as ever. Cyber bullying – using social media and texting to harass and embarrass others – takes a central role in Hannah’s torment throughout the show. My son had his first taste of cyber bullying in the fifth grade when someone opened a false Instagram account under his name and then started posting fictitious things he “said” and “did.” This show reminds me to stay in the loop on my kids’ social networks online, to “friend” them and monitor their posts, and do spot checks of their phones and devices. I can’t rely on them to bring stuff to me when things go wrong. They may be too scared, too embarrassed, or simply not want to deal with it in the hopes that it will all go away. And that’s assuming my kid isn’t the bully.
- We see the double-standards our culture has between boys and girls. From the first episode, boys cheer and thump each other on the back for making it past “first base” with a girl, while the same girl is labeled a “slut” for allegedly engaging in the exact same activity. The boy gets dubbed a hero. The girl gets dubbed as “easy” and pays a high social price for many, many months. We need to hold our boys and girls to the same high standards, because everyone suffers when we don’t. Sexual conquest does not make a man.
- I get a clear opportunity to talk to my teens about rape and rape culture. On more than one occasion, a self-entitled male takes advantage of vulnerable female classmates and forces them to have sex with him. He doesn’t understand that what he’s doing is actually rape, and I want to make sure my teens don’t make that same mistake. Watching the show and the circumstances that lead to both of the graphic rape scenes (fair warning once again) gives me a springboard for helpful resources like “Consent is as Simple as Tea” from YouTube to talk about date rape and sex. Our boys aren’t animals enslaved to their hormones. Our girls aren’t objects to be played with and taken advantage of. Teens of both sexes need to know this.
- I now have a clear agreement with my kids about what to do if they’re not comfortable talking to me about something. Several of the parents depicted in the series try to reach out to their kids. Very few of them succeed. And I gotta ask myself, “Did I share everything going on in my life with my parents when I was a teen?” The answer is a resounding, “No.” That’s why we’ve got to surround our children with godly, responsible adults other than us, folks they can talk to when things get rough and the parental units don’t feel safe. Of course, I’d prefer my kids to tell me everything, but I’m not going to be naïve about this. The stakes are too high. So I make sure they have other confidential options other than me and their dad. I’m so grateful for each of their youth group leaders and for close family friends my kids can go to if they feel they can’t come to me. And I’ve given them explicit permission to do just that.
- My teens have a pressure-release valve for their emotions and thoughts about suicide. At the beginning of the school year, my daughter, a high school junior herself, took a hard hit when a member of her audition-only vocal group took his own life. She didn’t know him well – she’d only just joined the group – but many of her friends were devastated. She’s seen the effects of suicide up close and personal. And as we progressed through “13 Reasons Why”, she processed more and more of those emotions with me. We’ve all been affected by these circumstances, and so have our kids. I didn’t know how intensely my daughter felt about the pain she witnessed until watching this show opened her up.
- The show gives me a list of specific questions to ask my teens about where they’re going and who they’ll be with. The series is replete with parties where parents aren’t present with the predictable drinking, drugs, and sex. Let’s get real – teens have been doing this sort of thing since before I was in high school, and our culture encourages that sort of behavior now more than ever. “13 Reasons Why” depicts kids involved in all these activities with alarming frequency. Paying attention to how and why the teens do what they do gives me some insight into the kinds of things I should be asking my own son and daughter about. Persistently. Without apology. I’m the parent. That’s my job.
- We see how empty and shallow the world’s “solutions” to the hard problems of life really are. I think this group of teens and adults turn to just about everything except God to try and solve the problems they face. Predictably, pretty much everyone watches out for their own self-interests, and only make things worse. The school tries to defend itself against a lawsuit, so officials cover up instead of dealing with problems. Teens turn to all sorts of short-term highs to escape their long-term pain, only to risk their futures with bad decision after bad decision. Parents get wrapped up in the ideals they have for their kids instead of seeing them as they really are, ignoring obvious trouble staring them in the face. All of this self-centered thinking gets no one nowhere, and that’s painfully obvious. You want a case-study in why the world’s way of doing things doesn’t work? “13 Reasons Why” would be a good option.
- Watching teens make bad decisions gives me case studies to talk to my kids about how to make better choices. Characters in the show deal with heavy, heavy problems ranging from social traumas to abuse at home to the after-effects of rape. Some turn to alcohol. Some turn to deflecting attention by spreading horrible rumors about their classmates. Some seek revenge in various ways. None of those options work out well. So me and my kids talk about what those characters could have/should have done differently. And those are great conversations to have with our children.
- My kids gain some sympathy for their socially awkward and “different” classmates. “13 Reasons Why” shows a lot of different kinds of teens from the jocks to the artsy-fartsy and everything in between. All kinds of kids get caught up in the story line, and all of them have their private pain that intensifies their emotions about Hannah’s suicide. The idea that everyone, no matter how different or weird they seem, has their own horror story hit home with my kids. I hope that will give them compassion for the “least of these” among them in the days to come.
- Ultimately, my teens recognize that isolation is their enemy. Isolation ultimately leads to Hannah’s tragic decision to take her own life. Some of it happens to her – and we do live in an increasingly isolated society. But some of her isolation is of her own making, and my kids see the damage that does. By the way, we should all take note that alone is a potentially dangerous spot for anyone to be in. Our spiritual enemy does his best work on us if he can get us away from the people who love us, believing that no one sees, no one understands. We can watch out for each other and our kids on this front as a community of believers. We can remind each other of the One who sees and understands best of all, and we can be His hands and feet for each other.
With all of the language, violence, and graphic content, I can’t in good conscience really recommend that everyone go out and watch “13 Reasons Why.” But if you are considering watching it with or without your teens, I figure you should be as fully informed as possible. As for me, well, I guess I just wanted to get inside my children’s world as best as I could, to see through their eyes for a while and know the kinds of things they’re seeing both in the real world and on TV. And I figured you’d want to know, too.