- - Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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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