13 Reasons Why
- BIK Team
High school: golden days when teenagers are encouraged to dream but also to study hard in preparation for their futures. In between both engaging and boring classes, sporting achievements and house parties, teenagers seem to live a fairly carefree life under the watchful eyes of their parents and teachers. However, what happens when a tragedy occurs and shifts the attention to potential underlying problems? Netflix has translated this scenario, first published as a best-selling novel, into a much-discussed TV series in 13 Reasons Why.
Adolescence is a time when teenagers truly discover themselves: 13 Reasons Why attempts to explain this process by depicting a series of key moments and decisions that teenagers encounter when trying to define their identity and their general fit with the world around them. When faced with such challenges, teens will typically focus on their popularity and reputation which, especially in today's highly-connected world, can grow or decrease exponentially with just a click, a picture or a post. And conversations or incidents which once might have been soon forgotten beyond that day's schoolyard gossip are now shared quickly via social media, reaching a far wider audience and making such situations much more difficult to forget.
13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high-school student who committed suicide after suffering a series of demoralising circumstances brought on by selected individuals at her school. It also tells the story of her friend and classmate, Clay Jensen, who learns about the 13 reasons why she committed suicide. Hannah used "old-school" audio tapes to record her truth and her experiences in dealing with bullying and cyberbullying, shaming, school rumours, being stalked and raped. Each of the tapes addresses either a classmate or an adult who traumatised her in such a way that death seemed to be the only solution. "It seemed like no matter what I did, I kept letting people down. I started thinking how everyone's lives would be better without me" (ep 12, tape 6, side B) was one of Hannah's last statements, reflecting a cry for help which no one around her seemed to perceive.
The series has an investigative trait, where parents, the school and some of the students try to unpick what really happened to lead to Hannah's death. While desperately fighting against copycat behaviour through campaigns and questions addressing current conflicts, the school shows how much it cares about the effects rather than the cause of Hannah's suicide. Even though the series doesn't focus on the use of social media, it does illustrate, on several occasions, the magnifying role which smartphones and apps may have, particularly in modern-day relationships. While yearning for the idyllic image of high-school sweethearts as her parents had, Hannah ends up suffering in a series of unfortunate events, starting by being publicly humiliated by the boy with whom she shared her first kiss (Justin) when a picture of an innocent, yet fairly intimate, moment between them is shared and rumours abound. A few months later, the same boy talks about how he was celebrating the two-month anniversary with his new girlfriend with a post on Instagram; a girl who also happened to be Hannah's former best friend.
Along with reviews of the cinematographic traits of the series, and numerous narratives from experts and educators' on how the tragic issue of suicide is dealt with, 13 Reasons Why also serves to highlight a number of difficult issues which many youngsters have to deal with in their every-day environment. Lack of self-confidence, bullying incidents, broken relationships, and fear of speaking to parents, are just some examples of problems that they face (which can be further amplified in the online environment) leading to upset, unrest, isolation, self-harm and sometimes suicide attempts.
Watching this series may evoke various questions and emotional challenges in children and young people, particularly as numerous scenes (not only those depicting self-harm or suicide) may reflect their daily experiences. Critical thinking when exposed to such audiovisual media content is crucial, especially since 13 Reasons Why has triggered multiple reactions from various experts in the field of online safety and education, the international press (Le Monde, The Telegraph) and broadcasters (CNN). Opinion is often quite split: some have heavily criticised the graphic events and representations portrayed in the series as "glamourising" teen suicide and promoting teen suicide contagion (that is, encouraging "copycat" suicides making it so visible to younger audiences), while others see it as a very positive opportunity to raise awareness and have open discussions of the issues and challenges which many young people may face, including teen mental health more generally, while also promoting sources of support and advice.
The Insafe Network of Safer Internet Centres has a long history of supporting children and young people with online safety issues, both through its awareness-raising activities and its network of helplines in Europe. Insafe acknowledges that is important to start and support constructive dialogues with young people, encouraging them to be open and honest about their feelings and experiences, helping them to realise that they are not alone in dealing with any issues they encounter, and that, equally, there are a significant number of support mechanisms available to them.
While the most recent Insafe helpline data does not point to self-harm or suicide as being key issues which helplines regularly address (self-harm 3.78 per cent and suicide 3.26 per cent), we must not underestimate the long-term consequences of issues that young people might encounter online which might, in turn, impact upon their general wellbeing and mental health. In a recent article, the Danish helpline illustrated how young people could relate with Hannah's story in 13 Reasons Why by publishing an interview with a young woman who has previously self-harmed and attempted suicide. Meanwhile, the Luxembourgish Awareness Centre has published an article aimed at parents and educators, telling them what they need to know about the series and how to talk with young people about the issues raised. Such publications point to the importance of acknowledging that children and young people are facing difficult challenges in their lives, and that parents, carers, educators, and all other people in a young person's life, have a role in supporting them.
To learn more about resources to support with some of the online safety issues raised in the series, check out the Resource gallery on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal. Specific examples include "So you got naked online?" from the UK Safer Internet Centre (translated also into Danish by the Danish Safer Internet Centre), and "Lockers" from the Irish Safer Internet Centre. Both resources aim to foster empathy, respect and resilience in dealing with shaming or bullying issues, such as those depicted in Hannah Baker's story.
Within the Insafe network, helplines provide information, advice and assistance to children, young people and parents on how to deal with harmful content (such as self- or peer-generated/shared images, or getting support in having online content removed), harmful contact (such as grooming, coercion or extortion) and harmful conduct (such as cyberbullying or sexting). To find contact details for national helplines, visit your Safer Internet Centre profile page.
Linked with the series, Netflix has created a website for more information on suicide prevention, with a list of countries and organisations which people can contact for help. And, in addition to the 13 episodes, Netflix also released a short documentary "Beyond the reasons" where the cast, producers and mental health professionals discuss scenes dealing with difficult issues, including bullying, depression and sexual assault.
- INHOPE, with input from Dr Eva Lievens, Ghent University
The lifespan and reach of an image online today is vast, and once distributed can be difficult to ever track or remove. This means that losing control of sensitive photos, even self-produced ones, can hold serious consequences, especially because seemingly innocent images may be used for anything from cyberbullying to child sexual exploitation or sextortion.