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The real debate about 13 Reasons Why

| September 5, 2017 | 0 Comments


The latest flashing red, hot-button phenomenon that has teenagers – and their parents – huddling in groups over iPads, laptops and phones worldwide, is the Netflix1 series 13 Reasons Why

It’s all about teen depression, bullying, rape and suicide, and is based on the novel of the same title by Jay Asher.2 In a nutshell, 13 Reasons Why is about Hannah Baker, a teenager who commits suicide after recording a series of cassette tapes, each side of each tape addressed to someone in her life who has hurt her, detailing how they contributed to her decision to take her life. Upon her death, the entire set is then given to each of these people in turn, so that their actions can be made public and they can face up to the consequences of what they have done. Film it in a way that shocks to the point of trauma, pepper it abundantly with expletives, add under-age drinking, drugs, sex, cyberbullying and a couple of date rapes – and, for a grand finale, film in almost step-by-step, DIY detail of a teenager slitting her wrists – and you have a hit series. Why?

The pros and cons

I watched 13 Reasons Why because my husband and I make a point of watching what school-going children watch to have some perspective into what they are being exposed to. 13 Reasons Why stuck like a thorn in our brains (and our hearts) for days. That’s when the research began. I found out that the backlash from health professionals, suicide groups and viewers has been global.3 I can see why. However, just as many reviews are “pro” the series.4 This suggests to me the possibility of a platform for connection between adults and teenagers. When I looked at Common Sense Media’s (CSM) site,5 things began to gel for me, because their reviews are split into parent reviews (about 60 reviews at my last visit to the site) and teens’ and kids’ reviews (about 120 reviews at my last visit). Parents are going mental over this show, but there are double the number of reviews from children and teens as there are from parents. So here are my reasons why – to listen more closely to what young people are saying and why this book and television series matters so much to them.


The episodes are riddled with swearing, and we may not like it but teenagers swear as part of their rite of passage to adulthood. Here is an extract from the review from a 15-year-old on Common Sense Media: Anyone who is offended by the content here, or who seriously thinks that no one under 17 should be watching this, needs to actually TALK to a high school student. If you’re offended by the language, walk through a high school hallway sometime. I’ve heard more F-bombs in one five-minute passing period than the entirety of this show.6 Scary, but if our kids are this exposed to swearing, the show is an opportunity to talk to your child about the “whens and wheres” of appropriate language. And, I ask, is swearing a reason to stop them watching the show? What do you think and have you talked to your family about it?

Drugs and booze

Once again, there is a lot of this going on in the series, including graphic footage of a teen killed in a car accident while doing a “beer run” during one of the parties. This 15-year-old CSM reviewer writes: “To all parents of teens: this type of thing happens all the time in high school! The profanity, the sex, the alcohol and the smoking are things that teens are experiencing and taking part in every day!”7 It is one of the simpler messages from our kids in 13 Reasons Why: it’s not safe, we know it, it’s happening anyway. It is portrayed as normal on the show because, well, for today’s kids, it is. The best we can do is to endure the eye-rolling and keeping talking to (not at) our kids, in the hope that when they are faced with these choices, our voices in their ears will be loud enough, and rational enough, to make them pause. Or is that the best we can do?


This show, and my research into it, has highlighted just how prolific, malicious and destructive bullying has become in our cyber age. We adults didn’t have the technology that kids have now, so we don’t have an existing set of guidelines or rules to teach our kids about responsible usage. We are making it up as we go along. Bullies today brutalise with viral postings of a humiliating event and glorify it further through response emojis, memes8 and posts about how worthless the victim is. This is exactly what happens to Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why. An innocent photo that shows her skirt riding up while sliding down a playground slide goes viral when it is linked to lies told by the boy who took the picture about how “easy” she is. This effectively erodes her reputation through the remainder of her time in high school. One photo. One comment.

A sick cycle

The ensuing bullying eventually culminates in rape, which she never divulges through shame and fear of even more abuse. Kids (and parents) who’ve read the book and watched the show are asking, was Hanna Baker vindicated by circulating these recording publicly after her death, or did she perpetuate the cycle of bullying by causing lifelong trauma in the perpetrators?9 A 2013 cyberbullying survey conducted by cited that 52% of young people never report the abuse they receive via smartphone apps. 13 Reasons Why makes things crystal clear: wake up and get educated! Bullying is bad! Or, as a 15-year-old CSM reviewer puts it: This show clearly represents a real-life situation. People do bully! There are teens getting under the influence and being raped at parties. And there ARE young people slitting their wrists because of the bullying and the acts of violence in their lives!11


Finally, the biggest drawcard for teens watching this show: the suicide itself. Netflix and the producers of 13 Reasons Why have taken a hammering for their graphic depiction of Hannah Baker’s suicide. Admittedly, I felt a bit sick watching, it so I understand why some adults would be concerned about teens viewing this material, especially with regard to suicide contagion and ideation in teens.12 In the book, Asher is open-ended about Hannah’s chosen method of suicide, only mentioning “swallowing a handful of pills”. The Netflix adaptation deviates dramatically here. In an interview with magazine Vanity Fair, 13 Reasons Why writer/director and producer Brian Yorkey said his mission was “to present suicide as something that’s painful and horrific – and certainly never an easy way out”.13

Let’s pay more attention to teens

I’ve lost count of the number of times parents have said to me, “My child and I have a great relationship. They tell me everything. We can talk about anything.” I guarantee you that that is not the case. There are things going on in teens’ lives that you don’t know about, and you don’t need 13 reasons to push to get to the truth.

Jacqueline Aitchison is director of Education Incorporated Boutique School in Johannesburg, Gauteng. Turn to page 38 of this magazine to read more about her school. To read a longer version of this article and to read other articles by Aitchison, visit: resources.html. This edited version of “The real debate about 13 Reasons Why” appears here with Aitchison’s kind permission.


1. See:
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3. See: henick-opinion/index.html and bans-under-18s-from-watching-suicide-drama-without-adult
4. See: and Herself-13-Reasons-Why- 43378484?utm_source=Edu%20Inc%20Newsletter&utm_medium=mailshot
5. See: utm_source=Edu%20Inc%20Newsletter&utm_medium=mailshot
6. See: child#
7. Ibid.
8. See, for example:
9. See, for example: bullied/
10. See:
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13. See: criticised-by-mental-health-organisation-over-dangerous-suicide-contenta3518241. html and

Category: Book Reviews, Spring 2017

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