New sea­son of ‘13 Rea­sons Why’ strikes fear

Pro­fes­sion­als fore­see teen copy­cat sui­cides

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS­TIAN TOTO

Net­flix usu­ally draws cheers when it an­nounces a new sea­son for one of its shows — but not this time for its series on teenagers about sui­cide.

Crit­ics fear a third sea­son of “13 Rea­sons Why” may spark copy­cat vi­o­lence amid re­ports that sui­cide rates have in­creased across the coun­try.

Last year, a 23-year-old Peru­vian man killed him­self, leav­ing be­hind a series of au­dio­tapes sim­i­lar to those recorded by Han­nah (played by Kather­ine Lang­ford), whose sui­cide is the cat­a­lyst for the Net­flix series.

What’s more, two Cal­i­for­nia teens com­mit­ted sui­cide after the broad­cast of the show’s first sea­son in March 2017. Their par­ents noted that they were watching “13 Rea­sons Why” days be­fore their fate­ful de­ci­sions.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion re­ported last week that sui­cide rates rose in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016, with at least a 30 per­cent in­crease in about half of the states.

In the 19 days after the de­but of “13 Rea­sons Why,” Google searches for “sui­cide” jumped nearly 20 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a JAMA In­ter­nal Medicine study. Those num­bers re­flect 900,000

to 1.5 mil­lion more searches than typ­i­cal for the sub­ject mat­ter. Pop­u­lar search phrases in­cluded “how to kill your­self.”

The stream­ing ser­vice re­sponded by cre­at­ing a 30-minute spe­cial, “13 Rea­sons Why: Be­yond the Rea­sons,” which highlights a web­site re­source for view­ers. Net­flix also added “warn­ing cards” be­fore the first episode of sea­son one and bol­stered the ex­ist­ing cards tied to the most graphic in­stall­ments.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Net­flix pro­duced a short video that airs be­fore a chal­leng­ing episode from sea­son two di­rect­ing view­ers to re­sources in case the ma­te­rial proves too un­com­fort­able.

Net­flix CEO Reed Hast­ings ac­knowl­edged dur­ing a June 7 on­line share­holder’s meet­ing that the series is con­tro­ver­sial but added that “no­body has to watch it.”

Net­flix didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Tim Win­ter, pres­i­dent of the Par­ents Tele­vi­sion Coun­cil, ticked off a litany of rea­sons why his group op­poses “13 Rea­sons Why” — with its de­pic­tions of sex­ual as­sault, gun vi­o­lence, pro­fan­ity and sex­u­al­ized teens in any given episode.

“All of those things are tar­geted and con­sumed by teenagers,” said Mr. Win­ter, point­ing to the warn­ings Net­flix adds to se­lect episodes. “Any at­tempt to sug­gest that isn’t the case doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

What par­tic­u­larly upsets Mr. Win­ter about the series is its bleak out­look.

“There’s no mes­sage of hope or redemp­tion or prom­ise of a bet­ter world,” he said, adding that heroic char­ac­ters get their come­up­pance while crim­i­nals get “a slap on the wrist.”

“What’s the mes­sage for kids watching? … Even if you do all things you’re sup­posed to do, it’s hope­less,” he said.

Eric Wood, as­so­ciate direc­tor of coun­sel­ing and men­tal health at Texas Chris­tian Univer­sity, un­der­stands the vis­ceral re­ac­tion to the series, es­pe­cially given the in­clu­sion of warn­ing cards. Those state­ments “ap­pear to ac­knowl­edge the risk for harm,” he said.

The very na­ture of the show, which rarely shies from de­pict­ing graph­i­cally dis­turb­ing themes, in­vites the con­cern.

“The more graphic and sen­sa­tional the art is, the more likely that peo­ple will feel the topic is be­ing de­hu­man­ized and ob­jec­ti­fied,” Mr. Wood said.

He noted that Net­flix com­mis­sioned North­west­ern Univer­sity to study “13 Rea­sons Why,” and the school’s re­port said the series helps spark con­ver­sa­tions about dif­fi­cult is­sues. Such dis­cus­sion “brings the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ac­knowl­edg­ing that many pro­fes­sion­als and ad­vo­cates have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives,” he said.

He sug­gested that Net­flix create a com­men­tary track, sim­i­lar to those on Blu-ray Discs, to “high­light the myths and facts” be­hind the sto­ry­line.

“Com­ment­ing that Han­nah dis­played signs of men­tal ill­ness, and how send­ing out the tapes is psy­cho­log­i­cally abu­sive, could ad­dress con­cerns that Han­nah is seen as heroic,” he said.

Caro­line Fenkel, a psy­chother­a­pist with the teen re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter Newport Academy in Philadel­phia, said the show’s first sea­son de­picted adults in an ir­re­spon­si­ble man­ner. From the par­ents to the teachers to the coun­selors, they were col­lec­tively “clue­less,” she said.

“That’s send­ing the wrong mes­sage to teenagers,” said Mrs. Fenkel, adding that the sec­ond sea­son im­proved on that de­pic­tion, al­low­ing Net­flix a bet­ter plat­form to ex­plore sui­cide and re­lated men­tal health is­sues.

Where Mrs. Fenkel di­verges from some show crit­ics is in the graphic na­ture of the con­tent. Yes, the show fea­tures scenes that are dif­fi­cult to watch no mat­ter your age. From her per­spec­tive, most teens have seen far, far worse.

“When you hand your kids a smart­phone, they have ac­cess to any­thing they want to see,” she said, adding that teens rou­tinely ac­knowl­edge watching adult ma­te­rial even if their par­ents say they are never ex­posed to it. “We have of­fi­cially lost con­trol. … The train has left the sta­tion.”

Mr. Win­ter said Net­flix’s po­si­tion on “13 Rea­sons Why” is sim­i­lar to that of ac­tion movie stars who in­sist fic­tional vi­o­lence doesn’t in­spire real-world vi­o­lence. The in­dus­try si­mul­ta­ne­ously cel­e­brates the pos­i­tive mes­sages shared by up­lift­ing pro­duc­tions, he noted.

“Hol­ly­wood can­not cel­e­brate its pro­found pos­i­tive im­pact on the is­sues it likes and yet sug­gest there’s no con­se­quences from their neg­a­tive [con­tent],” Mr. Win­ter said. “They can’t have it both ways.”

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