In case you’ve been in cryosleep for the past few weeks, 13 Reasons Why is a new Netflix Original series, based on a young-adult novel by Jay Asher, which is the talk of the nation’s teen crowd. I just finished watching all 14 episodes, and I wanted to provide some guidance for Christian parents who are wondering whether they should watch it and whether their kids should. I wish that I could advise you not to view it at all, for Scripture is clear that we should fill our minds and hearts with uplifting and godly things, neither of which describes 13 Reasons Why. There are plenty of online reviews which will give you a feel for the dark and shocking content of the show as well as the excellent quality of its acting and writing. Therefore, I am going to stick to the concerns I would have as a Christian parent if my two adult children were still teenagers.
- Talk with every child over the age of 8. You would have to be dead or seriously unplugged (which you are not because you are reading this blog) to miss that this series is a popular and controversial topic of conversation among kids and their parents. If you have a teenager, ask them whether they have heard of the show or watched it already. If you have a child over the age of 8, talk with them about whether you will allow them to watch the series and why. (You will have to read the rest of the review to find out whether I think you should.)
- Know your kids. In today’s world, children are first exposed to sexuality, homosexuality, drinking, drugs, suicide, cutting and pervasive profanity at wildly different ages, from preschool to college. It is imperative that you know your child when making the decision to see this series. It contains ALL the material mentioned above, but the most difficult-to-watch content is sexual in nature. Just because your kids have heard about these topics, doesn’t automatically mean they should watch the show. As an adolescent, I would not have been ready to view it before the age of 17, but that is, sadly, not the case for most of today’s kids. I do know a few home-school families who have been able to preserve that level of protection, but not many. I think most high school kids will see the series, or parts of it, with or without your permission. If your children are in the public school system, I’d recommend you watch the series yourself and talk about the issues with your kids (not necessarily allowing them to watch it) at about an 8th-grade level. I’m sorry.
- Watch the entire series before you decide. Your kids and other parents are going to ask what you are doing. Watch the entire series before you make a decision. Some of the most difficult material comes toward the end. You do not want to be halfway through with your child and suddenly decide not to let them finish. Take a few notes about the things you want to discuss in each episode as you watch it alone.
- If you let your kids watch it, watch it with them. If you decide they should see it (or believe they will see it anyway), the whole purpose would be to help shape their opinions, to ask them inviting questions and to feel out their own experiences. In addition, a few episodes could be traumatizing, and you want to be there to provide comfort and balance and to fast-forward or turn the TV off if you think they need you to do that.
- Don’t watch more than one episode at a time. When I was viewing the series, I watched several episodes together, up to three per day. I’d like to think I’m pretty savvy about my own emotions, but, at one point, I found myself feeling morose, emotionally flat, maybe even a little depressed. It took a while to realize it was because I had been immersed in those feelings by the show. Teens, whose brains have not fully matured in the realms of emotional and executive functioning, will be especially impacted by binge-watching.
- Teen boys stand to be more impacted than teen girls. Spoiler alert: much of the drama in this series concerns sexual assault. Teen boys will be most helped by understanding the ramifications – for both boys and girls – of this crime. Several episodes provide rich fodder for discussing the practical ambiguities of sexual consent (see below) as well as the peer pressure boys face in this area. However, graphic depictions of sex are generally more likely to replay as opportunities for sin and acting out with teen boys. That is not to say that girls won’t have their own problems with recall of those scenes, especially if they have not been much exposed before. I used to fast-forward when objectionable material came up, but I don’t know whether you have that luxury. Your kids have many ways to go back and view what you have censored. It’s probably still worth a try.
- Be sure to watch the follow-up. After the thirteenth episode of 13 Reasons Why, there is a short film featuring executive producer Selena Gomez which provides a very good follow-up to the issues raised by the series. It explains the teenage brain in a practical and compassionate manner while providing resources and suggestions for parents.
- The worst thing. I did not feel that the series glorified suicide as has been the criticism of some (see “Suicide” below). In my view the most harmful aspect for Christian teens was the assumption that sex will be had often and by everyone. In a late episode, the female protagonist finally spends time with the male hero who is depicted as her first love and the character with the most compassion and integrity in the plotline. After a few drinks, the two of them quickly find a bedroom and begin some heavy foreplay which one can only assume will lead to the loss of their virginity – on the first date. There is no implication that this is not normal or desirable. In fact, we are sad and frustrated when it doesn’t happen.
- The best thing. The best thing about this series is that it is an excellent opportunity to talk with older teens about a wide variety of difficult topics that they will certainly encounter in college if they have not already. (See “Know your kids” above.) If my small-Christian-schooled kids were still at home, I think I would watch this series with them the summer after high school graduation. I may be hopelessly naïve on that point, though.
- Sexual consent. Perhaps, as a Christian, you think I should just say that sexual consent follows marriage, but I have known way too many grown Christian men and women who are having unmarried, dating sex to think that the next generation of believers is doing any better. There is a move afoot to define sexual consent as an unintoxicated, unambiguous, “Are you OK with us having sex? Yes, I am,” exchange. I wholeheartedly, brokenheartedly support that definition. Do I think you should teach your kids to refrain from sex before marriage? Yes, I do, but I think you should also teach them about the worldview of the dominant culture around them, the unintended consequences of intoxication and the ramifications of criminal, sexual behavior.
- Suicide. All your teen girls are going to read about, hear about or think about suicide before they are out of high school. Many teen boys, too. Sometimes parents and even professionals are reluctant to bring up the topic lest they suggest something the student hasn’t thought about yet. That is not the danger here; the danger is not talking about something they have thought of. Make sure your teen has a suicide hotline contact in their phone to share with others. Crisistextline.org is one you might consider. Text HOME to 741741 to be connected to trained, volunteer counselors any time of the day or night.
What to say to your kids:
- If you decide your kids should not see this series, I’d suggest you be honest with them and tell them that the content is so very disturbing you think it could harm them. Explain that you can never truly erase anything you put into your brain. It would not be amiss to sit and talk about a few of the topics, anyway, especially sexual assault and suicide, but you can do it with less graphic intensity than they would experience by watching 13 Reasons Why. I’d suggest you ask your teens for a commitment not to watch the show elsewhere, and to come to you if they feel they really need to see it for some reason.
- If you decide to watch the series with your kids, Begin the same way, with a warning that the content is very disturbing. Ask them whether they think they are ready to see it and why. Anyone who has watched The Passion of the Christ knows that watching something can be much more powerful than talking or reading about it. Give them permission to take a break or turn it off, and ask them periodically if they want to do that. Warn them especially about the later, darker episodes. If you plan to skip a few scenes, explain why you feel that’s best for them and talk about not being able to erase those tapes in your brain. Have just a couple of questions ready at the end of each episode to discuss, e.g., “What do you think you would do if you were in her situation?” “What do you think God would say to him?” “Is there anything you need help with in your life?” “What would you do if there were?” Let your teens know up front that discussing these things with you is part of the deal. Try not to lecture or judge in ways that cause your kids to become defensive or end the conversation. Your kids may know other teens who are struggling and wonder what they should do. If the thoughts or behaviors involved are dangerous in any way to themselves or others, tell them they must involve an adult – it’s the only loving thing to do, even if it ends the friendship. Safety first!
If you are the parent of a teenager, may the Lord bless you with His strength, wisdom and grace as you grapple with how to approach this show. I’m afraid the only choice here is to be wise as serpents rather than innocent as doves.