Written by Alexis R. Lauricella, Ph.D. & Drew. P. Cingel, Ph.D
Communication can be a very powerful tool for educating and supporting youth. When children are little, we feel that the “why?” questions will never end. By the time our children are in middle school, however, we wonder if we will ever be able get a response to a question that is more than a “yeah” with an accompanying eye roll. We know that getting tweens and teens to talk about anything can be a huge undertaking and getting them to talk about the serious, important, and scary parts of their lives can be nearly impossible. But, maybe, entertainment media can help.
To the surprise of many critics, our recent research, published in a report for the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University demonstrates that viewing 13 Reasons Why – an intense, graphic, and emotional original Netflix series about a teen’s suicide – may have supported conversation between teens and parents. Somewhat surprisingly, even the adolescents felt the show supported conversation with their parents and many adolescents reported that they actually asked their parents to watch the show.
Although the show was developed as an entertainment program, Netflix creative executive Brian Wright acknowledged that they wanted this to be something that supported communication and enhanced empathy; our research suggests that it has done just that. Parents in four regions around the world reported that they felt it was easier to have conversations about tough topics with their adolescent, including sexual assault, depression, and suicide after watching 13 Reasons Why. Additionally, many adolescents reported that they feltmore comfortable talking to peers, parents, teachers, and counselors about these same topics after viewing.
Parenting experts suggest that parents should learn about the things that are of interest to their adolescent as a way to connect, but as many parents know, finding a shared interest between a parent and teens can be difficult. This research suggested that 13 Reasons Why may be that shared interest, or at least a shared experience that can help prompt parents and adolescents to talk about these topics.
While the 13 Reasons Why is intense and covers some very tough topics like peer sexual assault, online and offline bullying, and suicide, these are issues that tweens and teens around the globe experience. It is often hard for parents to get their teens to open up about their own personal experiences with these issues, as teens are seeking independence and are desperately trying to convince themselves that they don’t need their parents like they used to. However, teens do need their parents and want their parents to know and talk about these issues with them. The problem is that they generally don’t know how to ask or talk about these topics – and neither do their parents. This is again where a show like 13 Reasons Why may be of help. By watching the show together, or even separately, parents and adolescents can have a shared experience. Parents can get a glimpse into a fictional storyline that, according to many adolescents, feels like an authentic depiction of high school life. Adolescents can have faces and names of fictional characters to provide some distance in order to discuss issues, emotions, and circumstances that may be happening in their own lives. Rather than talking about their own struggles, they cantalk about how they can relate to the characters in the show.
While this research demonstrates that this show can help many parents and adolescents feel more comfortable talking about these difficult topics, parents and adolescents asked for more resources to help them have effective and positive conversations with their children about these topics. Netflix provides additional resources here.
Overall, this research points to the powerful role that media can have in bringing parents and children together in a shared experience that supports conversation for many families. Although certain depictions may seem intense, we found that exposure to 13 Reasons Why helped many adolescents feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts about mental health to supportive adults, and prompted many parents to discuss these topics with their teens. These are important, positive findings in the context of parent-child communication, and the well-being of adolescents.