“Feel free to call me a bad father,” says Alan Stokes about his decision to let his 15-year-old son watch the controversial show 13 Reasons Why.
The Netflix-produced teen drama has been criticized by parents and mental health professionals because of the way it portrays teen suicide. In the show, teenager Hannah Baker commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes for her friend Clay. Each tape reveals a reason why she ended her life, delving into high school bullying, social isolation, and sexual assault. Articles have circulated urging parents to stop their kids from watching the show, arguing that it glamorizes suicide.
Stokes, a father of five and columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, initially had reservations about letting his son watch the show. But he decided to try watching it with his son, hoping it would spark a useful dialogue about mental health and bullying. He came away with a much deeper understanding of the social hardship of teenage life. The experience inspired him to write a column about the subject.
Stokes sat down with his son, Ollie, to discuss the impacts of 13 Reasons Why and how teens might have different interpretations of the show than their parents. Ultimately, they felt that watching the show and discussing its implications together helped them gain a better understanding of how to tackle these issues.
This was a chance to witness a realistic depiction of the dark sides of high school life
Before I started watching the show, I read some of the outrage about it and heard from the critics. I had heard that mental health experts had been warning about watching it. But I thought, I’m going to decide for myself whether I think it’s glamorized and turning Hannah Baker into a hero. But when I started to watch it per recommendation from my son, who watched the series for a second time with me, I realized the show didn't glamorize suicide as much as the critics said.
Within the first couple of episodes I realized that this show was taking suicide really seriously and that this is depicting an American high school realistically. This is a show with insight into what teenagers are seeing every day and what they might be interpreting among their friends as the consequence of their actions in school.
And not only was it entertaining in that sense that it could engage people, but it obviously struck a chord deep down with millions of teenagers and young adults. So even if the suicide is glamorized, there are so many benefits in being able to engage people in an issue that normally would not be talked about. It's such a positive.
I started watching it because I knew that a couple of my friends were into it. But it wasn't until halfway through that I realized, this is exploring a couple of really important issues.
There’s always that kind of social hierarchy in school all the time. There’s the characters like Tyler who are left out; same with Hannah and Clay. Then there’s those jocks or athletic kind of people who are more popular.
And I think 13 Reasons Why is just much more realistic than a lot of other high school movies and shows. Other shows, they've got all the different popularity rankings. But this one delves more into the bullying, how those interactions happen and how this actually affects people’s lives in bad ways. In my school, there’s not as much of a difference in rankings between social groups. But there’s still bullying and putting people down anywhere. And that was just really accurate in the show.
It’s not just about suicide — it’s about bullying behavior that can hurt people
For me, the shock was that my 15-year old could see in all of the characters something that was familiar to him. To see a show that had teenagers who might be just like the kids at Ollie’s school, to see those characters and recognize similarities to his own friends or peer groups or school groups — it hit home to me that this is real. This is happening in every single school.
We've had situations where teens have taken their own lives at Ollie’s school over the past few years. I also work in a crisis line for people with suicidal thoughts. I know that suicide happens out there.
Research has shown that 18 percent of teenagers have considered taking their own life at some stage. That’s a shocking statistic. This show brought it home to me that my 15-year-old son could be one of those people. Would I know? Would I see the warning signs? Would he see the actions of people around him that could, in combination with a number of other factors, trigger someone to take their own life?
I will say the exploration of mental health issues didn’t really affect me personally as much. I just haven’t really had that much experience with those issues myself. But I do know a couple of people that it did affect quite a lot. And they were kinda awkward about the show and said that they couldn’t bear to watch it, especially the suicide stuff at the end.
But for me, I thought it was a good way to confront people and show that this is something that is actually happening in schools. This is something that is real. So it was a good insight into somebody who is getting bullied and experiencing all of these suicidal thoughts, and it’s real for them. So that's important, to see that world and what’s going on in their life.
But I think boys especially should watch it. Most of the people who have watched the show and really like it in my school are girls. The guys’ immediate thoughts are, “Oh this is a girly show because the main character is a girl, so why should I watch it?”
Sure, the bullying is mostly geared toward girls on the show, but the typical behaviors and stereotypes of boys are raised in this show in an important way. And sometimes guys don’t recognize that. There’s this part in the show when there are all of these guys in the locker room, and Hannah comes in and she's angry at one of the guys. Then she walks out, and all of the guys are jeering at her and saying all of these mean kinda things. It’s kinda difficult because that’s the pack nature of lots of guys. All these boys that individually might be okay, but when they’re together, they become these bullies.
We need to give teens more credit in how they consume media
Sometimes I think we don’t give our kids enough credit for how smart, caring, and wise they are. And if we just assume that our kids are not capable, be it age 15 or 21, of watching a show like 13 Reasons Why, then we’re not on their wavelength. They know much more about their own lives than we do.
What we need to be able to do is talk to your children and say, there are complex reasons for someone to take their life. And there are consequences to your actions when you bully someone and when you treat them poorly, when you betray them. It may not lead them to suicide. But at every step, your actions will have consequences. If we can sit down with our children and have that discussion, it makes every child a potential helper at every school when they see the signs or stop themselves from bullying someone.
What we need to do is use this as an opportunity to enter our kids’ lives for a short period of time and to help them and tell them that we’re there to support and help and care for them. In this case, 13 Reasons Why is a good door into the little social bubble that is our teenager’s life. That can be a bubble that can be a very dark place. If we can open the door into the dark place and use this show to do it, that can be positive.
Yeah, I definitely understand why principals and teachers are telling parents not to let their kids watch the show. But there are these confronting scenes and confronting issues in that show that kids need to know about, really. If we’re gonna try and stop bullying in schools and stop more suicides because of this bullying, this stupid stuff that’s happening in high schools without their parents knowing about it. Their kids should watch this show, as long as the parents have a chat with them afterward.
I think that strikes at the core of what’s the issue about this show. Your child will watch this show most likely whether you know or not. The reality is that principals or mental health experts saying, “Don’t let your kids watch this show,” isn’t going to be very helpful. It’s like closing the gate after the horse has bolted. It needs to turn into a positive educational opportunity to sit down with your children.
There’s another school of thought that is emerging now where principals are sending a note out saying, “You might be aware that your child is watching 13 Reasons Why and you will have read about it. Here are some helpful resources to help you understand what’s going on here and here’s how to talk to your kids about it. Maybe you should even watch it with them.”
To me, I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t say don’t watch it. As Ollie said, the people who aren't watching it are the people who need to watch it the most. As parents, we need to inform ourselves about what the risks are and confronting those suicide themes, which are really probably the most negative part of the show. The suicide should not have been depicted so clearly. But it’s in there. You can’t do anything about that. There’s a rape scene too. We need to discuss these things with our kids.
I reckon that’s a good thing as well. Parents are actually getting to know what’s happening in their child’s school. It’s a way to almost get more involved in your kid’s life. There’s this fine line or area of being too involved in your kid’s life. You want to be involved, but — then there’s those strict parents who don’t let them go out and that kinda thing. And then you gotta be involved in their life but let them go free as well, like watching this show.
What was interesting was after the show occurred, we were sitting there one night and Ollie was in his little social media bubble on the couch when he suddenly piped up and said, “Someone shared your column about 13 Reasons Why, Dad!” It’s become this sort of a viral community of parents saying, “Well what can we do about this show?”
It’s really a universal thing. The fact that America is talking about it and Australia is talking about it is really great. We have to do something. And hopefully, parents are doing it in an informed way, recognizing the risks. But doing it with their children. And that’s positive.