Teens Explain What Adults Don’t Get About 13 Reasons Why

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Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

If you spend any time in the company of teenagers, you’ve probably heard something about Netflix’s new hit 13 Reasons Why. Based on the 2007 book by Jay Asher, the show tells the story of Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford), a high-school student who commits suicide. Before doing so, she leaves behind 13 audiotapes that tell the story of her downward spiral, each dedicated to one of the classmates whose cumulative actions she says drove her to take her own life. Produced by Selena Gomez, the show has become must-see viewing for middle-school and high-school students across the world. It has also become a viral sensation, spawning countless memes and fan pages and instigating an ongoing conversation about the many dark themes — sexual assault, rape culture, bullying, teen suicide — with which the show engages.

It’s also increasingly been a lightning rod for controversy, with many mental-health professionals arguing that it romanticizes or glorifies teen suicide. Much has been written about the phenomenon of “suicide contagion” — how exposure to suicide can increase suicidal behaviors in vulnerable populations — and the show has been criticized for depicting Hannah’s suicide in graphic detail, without properly addressing the mental-health issues surrounding it. A number of schools and school districts in the U.S. and around the world have sent out letters warning parents about the show, as have various mental-health advocacy groups. “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series,” the National Association of School Psychologists said in a statement. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

Dana Zais, a clinical director at the Wayside Youth & Family Support Network, told the Boston Globe that — based on referrals her program receives from emergency-service teams — a number of children who have recently contemplated or attempted suicide described being able to relate to the show. “There is a contagion factor when a school has a suicide,” she said, “and this show is causing the contagion to happen.”

Still, others have argued that the show can lead to important conversations. One high-school teacher that I spoke with said that she is frustrated by schools’ attempts to prevent kids from watching the show (because when has abstinence-only education ever worked?), when teachers should instead be engaging with students about the issues the show raises. “Facing these issues head-on — talking about them, being open about them — will always be our best defense against losing another life,” wrote show writer and suicide survivor Nic Sheff in a Vanity Fair editorial.

While countless articles have highlighted adult concerns about the show, surprisingly few have offered a teenage perspective, so I decided to reach out to high schoolers to get their thoughts on the show. (I didn’t set out to talk only to girls, but the show’s viewership appears to skew that way; according to two proprietors of popular 13 Reasons Why Instagram accounts, over 80 percent of their followers are female.)

Even with all of the controversy around the show, the intensity of the reactions surprised me. In all cases, interviewees said the show had been a major topic of conversation at school and that most, if not all, of their friends had seen it. I found sources from all over the country by reaching out to teenagers who had posted about the show on social media, as well as those referred by friends and colleagues. Some of the more personal accounts (including those that described experiencing suicidal thoughts) have been omitted from the reporting. Names and identifying details have been changed.

I go to school and I see all these people by themselves.

“Most of my friends have watched it or want to watch it. I feel like what my friends and I really talk about now is Hannah’s story, and how each thing really affects her to the point where she made the decision she did. And how we should not just be kind to people — because we should do that every day — but how we should watch what we say to people, and understand that we really don’t know people’s story and that we shouldn’t judge them. My parents weren’t really too happy [about me watching it]; they just didn’t understand it. I think they felt like it would kind of sink me into a depression, and I think that’s not something the show would do because it raises awareness about things like that. It was pretty life changing.

“I go to school and I see all these people by themselves, and now I’ve chosen to really start connecting with these people, and understanding that the people who are alone are the ones you should be reaching out to the most.” — Louise, 15, California

We had a boy commit suicide at our school, and no one knew how to handle it.

“[After watching the series], my friends and I would sit down and honestly we’d ask each other, ‘Have you ever had these feelings before? Have you ever gone through something like this?’ It’s weird to sit down and have these conversations with your friends, after watching a show that was so powerful. I feel like the show is making people talk about it, and it’s a positive thing, if it’s making teens have conversations with their friends and family and peers about tough subjects they wouldn’t talk about otherwise.

“It’s actually been talked about so much at our school that the principal sent an email to everyone’s parents, with a link to an article that talked about the dangers of watching the show. We had a boy commit suicide in the fall at our school, and no one really knew how to handle it. It’s so tragic; it’s absolutely terrifying and very sad; and there’s really no good way for the school to go about comforting everyone. But when the school spoke out against this show that students were watching to learn something, I think that was really a bad move on their part. Because we were not really told what to do, how to feel, what was okay, and what wasn’t okay when someone actually committed suicide at our school. And when people are kind of watching the show to learn these things and the school said, ‘Don’t. It’s not a positive thing to do,’ that was really disappointing.” — Jenny, 17, Iowa

Bullies are the ones who tend to like the show more than the victims.

“I read the book during my sophomore year of high school, and I really fell in love with it — it was great.

“I watched it with my girlfriend; it took us about a week to finish. Right off the bat, it was completely different from the book. None of the scenes in the book were as graphic as in the show. When I got to the last few episodes — I had read some things online that warned me — but watching the rape scenes and being a sexual-assault survivor, and having my mom be a sexual-assault survivor as well, it really hit home. As soon as I saw it, my heart just dropped. And they showed the scenes for an uncomfortable amount of time. I feel, like for the victims, it’s harder to watch, but for the bullies and for the people who’ve raped people, I feel like it would be good for them to watch. And that’s what I’ve been noticing as well: Bullies are the ones who tend to like the show more than the victims.

“The show is really popular in high school, but I didn’t like it at all. And of course, when it came to the part where she actually committed suicide, and them showing everything — and then the show ending right then and there, and them having all these little cliffhangers — it kind of left me on edge. Honestly, I had an anxiety attack; I broke down, pretty much. I used to self-harm as well, and I tweeted about it, saying, ‘If you’re sensitive to content or if you’ve ever been through these things, I recommend you don’t watch it alone.’ And someone right away messaged me back and said they agreed the show could do more harm than good. I asked why, and they said because for them it made them want to end their life. I, of course, made sure she was okay, and she said she’s been getting better. I catch up with her now probably once a week and make sure she’s okay. But the show, and what she said to me, is exactly what I didn’t want to happen to people, and it did.” — Sofia, 18, California

They really missed the mark.

“I really didn’t want to like the show at first, because I watched the first two episodes and it seemed very spiteful and a little strange. But all my friends were really obsessed with it. I’d say a good 50 percent of the girls have started watching it — it’s definitely more well received among girls, and everyone had Instagram posts crying about it — like, ‘Nooooo Clay!’ I watched it as sort of a guilty pleasure. But once I finished the series, I still had a lot of issues with it — not that it was difficult subject matter, because I thought the way it addressed sexual assault and the culture surrounding sexual assault was really great.

“My biggest issue was that it didn’t address Hannah’s depression at all; it just makes it seem like you kill yourself because of things other people do to you, and not because of what’s going on inside of you. I think they had an opportunity to make it a lot more introspective for her and talk about the toll and effect it had on her — I think they really missed the mark.” — Amelia, 17, Massachusetts

Once you’re stuck with a reputation, you can’t make it go away.

“One of my favorite quotes from the show is ‘everything affects everything,’ because it’s true: You make one wrong decision and it all goes bad. There are a lot of reputations and rumors that go around in high school. I know a lot of people who’ve dated people before, and when they broke up, the guy got mad so he spread a whole bunch of rumors. And once you’re stuck with a reputation, you can’t make it go away, no matter what; rumors stick with you.

“My parents were fine about me watching it, but they refused to let my middle-school sisters watch it, for good reason. In fact, so many kids at the middle school have been watching it that there was a call home to the parents, saying that they shouldn’t let their kids watch it because of the sensitive material.

“A lot of the scenes they are worried about are the rape scenes and stuff, and I can see how that could be a problem. But even bringing it up to middle schoolers could help them understand. A lot of them are afraid to speak out; they don’t think that anyone gets them; they don’t think that anyone’s there. Seeing the signs of Hannah, I know a few more people who are like, ’Maybe I should see a counselor. Maybe I am feeling depression. Maybe I am feeling anxiety.’ They didn’t realize the signs; they just knew that they weren’t feeling good.” — Laura, 16, Washington State

A lot of kids are watching it and not talking about it.

“I actually started watching it and really enjoyed it, but then I read a lot of things online about how it’s been harmful for victims of depression and self-harm. And once I watched it more, I realized how badly it portrayed suicide. When you watch the show, you don’t think of it as real. It glorified suicide, for me. It’s good that it spreads awareness, obviously, but a lot of kids are watching it and not talking about it, and just taking it as fiction, and that is a problem. My parents got an email from the school to talk about it with me, and we talked a little bit about it, but my mom kind of knew I had already developed an opinion about it, so she was more okay with not discussing it. But a lot of younger kids, like seventh-graders, were watching it, which I know was definitely a problem at school.” — Dara, 14, New York

People are a little bit more cautious now.

“A lot of people talk about it in between classes or at lunch; it’s definitely the most popular show right now. I think because of it, people are a little bit more cautious — asking people if they’re okay and if they want to talk. I think it doesn’t show a great image of what high school looks like, even though I’m not there. But I know from middle school that the groups, and how they grouped people together as friends, weren’t as realistic. They made it seem like every friend group had a lot of problems, where they didn’t really like each other. I think in most friend groups, they either just leave if there’s a problem or they figure it out; it’s not like there’s a lot of hatred going on between them.” — Dani, 13, Massachusetts

Mental illness was never brought up once.

“I actually started a fan account before watching the show, because my friend and I had read the book a while back. I know there’s a lot of talk about whether it portrays mental illness and suicide in a romanticized light, and I do think some people can confuse having a fan account for the show with being completely complicit with everything the show puts out. I think the biggest issue I had with it is that mental illness was never brought up once, and I think by not addressing it, the show does perpetuate the stereotype that people who commit suicide are just seeking attention. But I think even having the show exist starts a very important dialogue.

“Another thing I wasn’t a big fan of is that they didn’t provide any resources in the show, and none of the characters ever talk to each other about what you should do if you’re having suicidal thoughts. [She includes a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on her Instagram fan page.] I figured for people who enjoyed the show and come to the page, it might have some sort of answer or idea about what to do if you’re struggling. We get so many DMs from people every day who just want to reach out and talk about what they’re experiencing in their life — people who are being bullied or feel lonely, or who don’t think their parents love them, stories about their struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm. It’s pretty heavy stuff, and it can be kind of overwhelming because, at the end of the day, I’m just a teenager who runs a fan page for a TV show. We always respond with our best advice, but always follow it up by saying, ‘We are just two 18-year-old kids; if you need to talk to someone, then you need to find a resource at your school or in your community.’ I know social media can be portrayed sometimes as harmful, but I think it’s a great way for people to come together.” –Stephanie, 18, Missouri

Someone would just bring a screenshot to the principal.

“It wasn’t my favorite show. There were a lot of things in it that I had a problem with, like the fact that they never even brought up the word ‘depression.’ It was just a little unrealistic, and didn’t really bring attention to a lot of aspects of suicide and teen depression.

“There were a lot of things that relate to a lot of girls, like how she gets harassed by the guys at her school. I think the actress did a really good job portraying the emotions of that. But the way the rumors were spread by phone — that would get shut down at my school so quickly. Someone would just bring a screenshot to the principal, and they’d immediately stop that. I think that was a bit unrealistic, and a little bit out of touch with what high school is actually like.” – Liz, 14, New York

It brought my mom to tears.

“I think they did an incredible job of depicting how it really is in high school, how guys can really be like that, and how teenagers are so fake to each other. Parents don’t realize what we go through — how horrible teenagers are, the words they say, the things that happen, what goes around, people’s nudes being leaked all the time — they just don’t understand. In terms of nudes being leaked, it happens every day. At my school, this new thing just happened where people turn their AirDrop on, and they send nudes anonymously to everyone. It’s insanely horrible.

“My mom actually ended up watching it, and it brought her to tears. After she’d finished the last episode, she sent me a text, saying, ’I hope you know you can always come to me, because I will always be there with no judgment.’ What she said was really heartfelt and it meant a lot.” – Taylor, 18, Arizona

Teenagers Explain What Adults Don’t Get About 13 Reasons Why