The 2017 Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is a major hit but also a cause of controversy. The series is based on Jay Asher’s fiction novel 13 Reasons Why, which was published in 2007 and became a bestseller in 2011. The main themes in the series are student bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Although the series received major backlash for its “dark and harsh” portrayals, it resonates with an important message and purpose. The show is beneficial to high-school aged teenagers and their parents who can learn a valuable lesson from its content. It is also useful for education personnel because it informs viewers of the warning signs of both cyberbullying and school bullying, which the staff may be unaware of.
Each episode is a “tape” recorded by the main character, Hannah Baker, who explains the reasons why she committed suicide. The tapes are circulated through a specific group of students. Throughout the episodes, as the bullying escalates, Hannah reaches out to others for help. Her attempts to seek help were ignored by fellow students and even her guidance counselor who failed to realize that she was experiencing severe bullying both in school and through her cell phone and social media pages. Each episode becomes progressively worse, revealing more information behind Hannah’s suicide. The show was renewed for a second season, which is expected to debut in 2018. The renewal announcement sparked a debate over the serious matters depicted and whether the show is appropriate for young teenagers.
This show illustrates that cyberbullying is important for educators to understand both how it occurs, and how to address it. Generally, cyberbullying occurs through technology such as a computer or a cell phone. It can happen through text messages or e-mails, social media, or other websites. One example of cyberbullying is the creation of fake social media profiles used to harass a student or to post insulting and/or embarrassing things about an individual. Another example is sharing embarrassing pictures or videos on social media or through text messages, which was seen in 13 Reasons Why.
Some red flags that a student is being cyberbullied include, but are not limited to: anxiety and overstressing, refraining from using the computer or cell phone, change in friends, reluctance to attend school, and a drop in grades. Conversely, warning signs that a teen is cyberbullying other students include: hiding the screen when someone comes by, appearing nervous or jumpy when using a cell phone or computer, constant computer and/or cell phone use, becoming extremely angry when the computer or cell phone is taken away, and acting secretive while an electronic device.
In the series, young characters face online harassment from Internet trolls and shaming on social media. The show also displays that in the world of cyberbullying, once something posted to the cyber world (such as a picture or a video), it remains there permanently.
The series also involves teenage alcohol and drug use, rape, depression, sexism, and violence, all of which are real world issues that many students throughout the United States are exposed to everyday. Critics of the series found that some scenes are extremely graphic and damaging. Further, many critics accuse the show of “glamorizing” and “romanticizing” suicide. The show prompted many schools throughout the country to send letters home to parents or guardians warning them about the show.
On the other hand, another perspective of the show is that it sends a message to high school students that there are people that can help them and that there are ways to handle both school bullying and cyber bullying. During a recent interview with Elvis Duran on Z100’s The Morning Show, Executive Producer, Selena Gomez, defended her series against the backlash. She acknowledged the graphic nature but stated that they wanted to portray it in a way that was honest and to help prevent suicide. The production team consulted with mental health professionals during the production of the series. The team also provides suicide prevention resources and crisis hotline information on their website.
Despite these different perspectives, viewers can learn from watching the series. In addition, there may be some other valuable benefits to watching the show for parents, students and teachers. For parents, it is important to understand issues that their children in high school face every day. Sometimes parents are not as tech savvy as the younger generation; watching the main character being abused and humiliated through technology informs them of the various ways children are bullied.
For students, watching the film may help them realize how harmful bullying and cyberbullying can be, and cause them to stop bullying others and/or to report any type of bullying they witness. As discussed previously, it also shows that once something is done over the computer, it is hard to say that it never occurred.
For teachers, the show is important as it illustrates certain red flags that signal a student may be bullied by other students. If teachers can learn these potential warning signs, they may be able to assist in preventing potential depression and suicide that may result from bullying. In addition, the series provides useful methods for teachers on how to deal with cyberbullying and in school bullying. For example, in one of the episodes, a teacher implements a method for students to complement each other in an effort to discourage bullying. For these reasons, some experts have suggested that schools show the film to students during class.
There are many important takeaways from 13 Reasons Why for students, parents, and teachers. School and their teachers may consider showing the series to their students or consider incorporating the series into class discussions. If schools are unable to show the series or prefer not to, parents may consider watching the series with their children as an educational experience.
 Parents may want to monitor their children’s viewing as some content may be inappropriate for younger children.
This blog post was written by Samantha Hudler, a law clerk at Jules Halpern Associates LLC.