While Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has received significant criticism for its “dangerous” themes, among teens, it’s become somewhat of a cult show.
The series has attracted the most social media attention of any series, and is so popular with young people, schools have started to issue warnings to parents, teachers have found themselves discussing the show with their students, and in online forums, teenagers have praised the show for “saving their lives”.
There’s undeniably something about 13 Reasons Why, and the themes it addresses, that resonates strongly with an adolescent audience. So we asked four teenage girls what they think adults are ‘missing’ about the show.
May*, 17, said Hannah Baker’s story was more familiar than most adults might think. “The things that happened to Hannah Baker actually happen in real life,” she said. “And people do stupid things without realising the consequences of their actions.”
While she found the infamous ‘suicide scene’ graphic, May said it also “raises awareness of what bullying can do… and how your actions can affect another person”.
She said ultimately, "adults don't understand what it's like to be in high school". For May, and presumably for her peers, 13 Reasons Why depicts a world they feel like the adults around them have never seen. "Times have changed since they were here," she said, "and they don't understand the atmosphere and the vibe of social media and the pressures of fitting in".
Indeed, the significance of social media as a tool to bully and humiliate others was noted by the other teens we spoke to. Sarah*, also 17, said she thinks her parents and teachers are completely "clueless" when it comes to the damage social media can do. "People can use it to be really cruel," she said. "Teachers tell you to block it and ignore it but that's not how it works. And the bullying isn't as obvious as hitting someone or calling them names at school."
Other teens, however, acknowledged the show is an "exaggeration".
"I don't think kids really are that vicious," said Amy*, 19. "But reading other reactions and reviews it was eye opening to just how intense high school can be for some people."
Amy thought the most relatable aspect of the show was the "slut-shaming" Hannah received, "regardless of whether she did anything or not".
Listen: The Binge team argues about whether 13 Reasons Why is powerful or problematic. Post continues below.
This is a reality Amy doesn't think her parents and teachers are necessarily aware of. "Between young women it's sad to see how easily people throw that word around," she said.
She also thought the "whole idea of how things can get around so quickly especially with social media" is something not everyone understands. While parents and teachers might think some of the dramas in 13 Reasons Why are not realistic, the teens we spoke to assured us they are. Then, when things get out of hand, young people don't tell their parents because "they feel embarrassed or ashamed," Amy said.
For 16-year-old Caitlin*, it was Hannah's sensitivity that struck a chord. "It can sometimes be hard to forget that 'one remark' or that fight that happened three months ago," she said. Ultimately, Caitlin thinks the show is a good lesson in why it's important to be nice to each other.
While the tapes were unsettling for some of the other girls, Caitlin thought they were crucial in illustrating "every interaction you have with someone does matter."
There are a number of themes from 13 Reasons Why that seem to appeal uniquely to the adolescent psyche, and many of them are important to listen to. While teenagers are notoriously dramatic and moody and like to think no one understands them - there are certain realities parents and teachers might not be aware of. Like the power of social media, the effect of slut-shaming, and the intense pressures of fitting in.
Adults are also within their rights, however, to challenge some of the beliefs young people hold about 13 Reasons Why being 'realistic'. Reminding teenagers of their own resilience, the people around them who can always help, and the fact that a healthy life is about experiencing both positive and negative emotions, is crucial.
At best, 13 Reasons Why offers a stimulus for parents to have important conversations with their kids about mental health and suicide. Hopefully, an ongoing dialogue will mean young people can be more open about the struggles they face, and adults can be positioned to help.