The reality of suicide in the adolescent age bracket is very apparent. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds. Statistics show that about 8% of young adults have thoughts of suicide. When suicide is publicized and even romanticized, that statistic will continue to increase. This trend is happening with the entrance of the mini-series “13 Reasons Why.”
The Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why” has been out hardly a month and is already making waves across the Internet. The mini-series tells the story of the tragic suicide of a young girl, Hannah Baker, through several audiocassette tapes that she leaves detailing each of her thirteen reasons for taking her own life. It’s a dark and emotionally gripping story on a very relevant topic to teens in 2017, so it comes as no surprise that it has become the cultural phenomenon that it is. I’ll spare you the details of the show (a Google search will reveal more than you ever want to know) and instead implore you to critically examine your family’s media consumption.
Nothing New Under the Sun
There is nothing that is known to man that hasn’t been seen before. “13 Reasons Why” has not all of a sudden introduced the themes of rape, suicide, mental illness, or depression to our students. More than likely, the students that you love have already been exposed to these ideas by virtue of attending school everyday, if not having experienced them firsthand. I’m not writing this because a Netflix show has shattered the innocence of our youth–it merely provides a popular context for us to engage with the reality that our students are dealing with adult themes at an early age.
Perhaps it’s due to the current state of the Internet and technology, but I’m inclined to believe that the key struggle of the teenage years has always been having to process adult-level information with a still-developing brain. The only difference is that smart phones and the like have made access easier and more rapid. The reality is that there is an extremely high likelihood that your junior high or older student has consumed digital content with mature themes that they may be too immature to process without the aid of a discerning adult. “13 Reasons Why” isn’t the first questionable show to become available on Netflix and it won’t be the last. While we would recommend that teens not watch this particular mini-series, please resist the urge to simply prohibit your children from watching this one show. We have a massive opportunity to talk with our kids about their digital consumption and adult themes of suicide, rape, and depression. Here are a couple rules of thumb to keep in mind when making a plan for how your family will deal with this:
- Ratings Matter: “13 Reasons Why” is rated TV-MA, which means it isn’t recommended for persons under 17 years old. I know that the ratings “PG-13” and “R” don’t necessarily provide a great framework for setting household rules for appropriate content, but they do matter. Anything rated PG-13 or higher needs review by parents beforehand.
- Access is Unlimited: Your house may not have a Netflix subscription and your 12 year old may not have a cell phone, but their access to adult digital content is virtually limitless. You can try to cut it off at the source, but there’s no possible way to completely shelter your child from a “13 Reasons Why” world. Set appropriate boundaries for media consumption, but also take some time to equip your children to discern what is beneficial and what is soul-corrupting.
- They Are Not Too Young: Your conversation with your 6th grader might be different than with your junior in high school, but the conversation still needs to happen. Anxiety, depression, and suicide aren’t just high school struggles anymore. Your younger children need to be equipped as well.
Open Your Mouth
“13 Reasons Why” is not the optimal medium to spark conversation with your children and students about tough topics of depression and anxiety. In fact, we would strongly recommend against using it as a tool for the basis of discussion or even watching it as a family. The revenge-induced production of the tapes–as others have pointed out–glorifies attention-seeking suicide and the shaming of those who are to “blame”. Not only is it unhealthy for students to be influenced by this glorification, but this is also a gross misrepresentation of a person truly struggling with depression. If your family is looking for content to process these grown up themes, “13 Reasons Why” isn’t it.
As I have been mulling over this show and our students’ reaction to it the last several weeks, I have been reminded of just how relevant the struggles of anxiety and depression are to the students we love. Our desire is to help students heal through the knowledge of their great hope in Christ and connect those who need it to professional aid. While broaching the subject can be hard or uncomfortable, we are called to push back the darkness by bringing it into the light.
Last week I sat with our Student Ministry team and asked, “What do we tell our students about this issue?” One team member said it so simply and clearly–open your mouth. Students, if you are a struggling with depression, battling anxiety, or having suicidal thoughts: open your mouth. Please don’t try to do this alone. It might take everything you have to say it out loud, but tell a trusted adult what you are dealing with. Parents, don’t let awkwardness, lack of confidence, or ignorance keep you from opening your mouth. Trust that the Lord will equip you with every word your child needs to hear so that they or a friend won’t have to walk alone.
Our battle is not against a television show, the Internet, or even the shifting moral climate of our nation. Our battle is against the broken nature of this world, which the risen Christ has already overcome. Praise God that our King has come to deliver us from even this!