Thursday, 29 June 2017

13 Reasons Why - It must be discussed.

As a big Netflix fan, I am continually being given suggestions as to what I should watch. The series,13 Reasons Why kept popping up on the screen.  It struck me as another teen angst program and I kept passing it up until my almost 30 year old daughter told me , ‘Ma , watch it,’  it’s different .  I always listen to her when it comes to movies, shows etc. 13 Reasons Why is based on a book of the same name, authored by Jay Asher under the genre of Young Adult.  It has generated a lot of  brouhaha world wide.
I have to be honest. I binge watched the whole thing.  The series is gripping and deals with multiple issues like peer pressure, bullying, the pressure to be in a relationship, sexual harassment which according to statistics is increasing at schools worldwide.

13 reasons why, follows the life of Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 cassettes which reaches the doorstep of her friend, Clay Jenson who has a crush on her. Through the cassettes, we hear her tell her listeners why she holds 13 of her peers responsible in some way, for her decision to end her life. Each episode sees the narrative weave back and forth in time and also back and forth between Hannahs and Clays thoughts. It really has been brilliantly produced and directed.  
We get to see the various experiences that Hannah has as a newbie in town and at school, trying to ‘fit in’. In the final episode, Hannah takes the drastic step to end her life in a very deliberate manner that is very disturbing to watch, even for an adult.  Many times leading up to the finale, we are tempted to shout out encouragement and advise to her and that there are recourses that she can take.
There have been numerous debates and deliberations on whether the series should be banned, and schools have stepped in with cautionary messages to dissuade students from watching it.
A recent newspaper article in the Gulf News reiterates that it could trigger copycat actions amongst teenagers.

There is a real opportunity to use this show to start a discussion on the various struggles that teenagers appear to go through in today’s turbulent times. Banning it is a sure fire way of ensuring that young ones will surely watch it, at a friend’s place or secretly at night. So there isn’t a point in that, in my opinion. So, watch it with your children. Many teens find it awkward and uncomfortable to watch anything with parents but in this case since there is SO much of interest in this show, we can and should persuade them to watch it together, with us.
I asked a few young adults (14 to 17 years of age) what they thought about the series and is high school really that traumatic. Here are some takeaways from my conversation with them.

The children feel that in the UAE, schools are different and isn’t the toxic environment portrayed in the show. They were unanimous in saying that everyone should be able to watch the show, maybe not for the very young though. (14 years and below according to them) B, who has a very young sister(11 years) was clear that he did not want her to watch the show as he felt it did not depict an accurate picture of high school  and could  influence her perception of it. The visuals being very graphic could also have a negative impact.

I broached on the whole Slut shaming thing with them (this was the main trigger for the  character’s downward spiral in the series).  The older lot seem to feel that in most cases the girls kind of brought it on themselves as they are rather careless on social media when they post pics or insert comments. They felt that bullying decreased in the final years of high school. Interestingly the boys, didn’t seem to think that slut shaming happened at their school but qualified that statement by saying that a certain bunch  of their classmates had left the school the previous year and that’s probably why there werent instances of it.(!) L indicated that in her school slut shaming occured but felt  that the girls had themselves to blame. Those girls were very aware of the ‘reputations’ that they had and were ok with it. In fact some looked upon it as a compliment.
The Younger lot in the group had a slightly different take on the show. For them it wasn’t just a TV show, as felt by the older ones. They felt that the show made them think about consequences of being mean and rude to others. They could relate to the feel of the fictional high school and that ‘kind’ of bullying. According to these mature 14 year olds, 7th or 8th grades was when they started to notice that kids were getting teased or bullied. That’s when the groups and friendship became more defined. So there were the popular girls group(these were the ones that went for parties etc), the Nerd group( I really dislike the connotation to this one) the studious lot, the athletes  and so on..

All in my little group knew of someone at school who was being bullied. We talked about coping mechanisms and what the character Hannah could have done differently.  They felt that if she had more friends to confide in, talk things through her choices would have been different.  If she had interests and activities outside of school with a different group of people that would have been a good outlet for her. They related to her reluctance to confide in her parents. It was really surprising and disheartening (for me as the only adult there) to know that the children felt adults/parents/guidance counselors are usually the last option.  According to them, adult intervention would result in worse consequences and the embarrassment that they would have to go through, would be paramount and traumatic. All of them felt that they could cope and manage any problems. Only when they have exhausted all avenues, would they approach an adult. These young ones had no answer when I asked them when, according to them, would be the right time to ask for help to avoid trauma or even personal injury. The brilliant silver lining to all of this was that all of my young friends were unanimous in their opinion that suicide should never be an option and that there are so many other choices that can be made.

Needless to say after this informal meet, I was rather upset. Upset because as parents we are the safety nets for our children, always. They should know that, right? Where have we gone wrong that our teens view us as the last resort. What are we not saying to them, assuming that they are intelligent enough to make right choices? Why should seeking parental help be viewed as a teasing point among teens as in  ‘You are so lame , you went crying to mummy’. Of course you know I am generalizing but it is what these children had to say. How can we recognize signs that our children might be going through some rough stuff? 

In the series, social media played a big role in the way photographs and comments were being shared. Bullying has evolved and with the availability of privacy settings on various social media platforms ,we will never know the kind of messages exchanged nor the level of participation our children may have in what might be  perceived as ‘harmless banter’. Look at the recent case of students who had had admission offers from Harvard withdrawn due to offensive posts in a FB messaging group. The anonymity of social media creates cyber monsters who under the blanket of   namelessness prey on the vulnerable. Who among us are the most vulnerable? For me its our children, our impressionable children who desperately want to fit in, at school, at home , in their communities and so on. In this melting pot that is the UAE, many of our young global nomads are seeking to find their own identity amidst this internationalism, while trying to understand their roots and why this seems so important to their parents. Add to this the pressure of academics and securing a high grade.  
13 reasons why tackles a lot of relevant issues. View it as an opportunity to bond with your children. You know they are going to watch it sooner or later.  Do use it as an opening for honest conversation, to offer unconditional love and hugs and an ever ready shoulder , to listen without judgment , to not dismiss their trivial fears , to suggest , advice and above all to promise to always be there , as the very FIRST RESORT.

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