As Youth Leaders, we see first-hand how teens are continuously being bombarded, like never before, with a vast variety of mixed messages from a vast variety of sources. With this in mind, the degree to which culture has the ability to influence teenagers is higher than ever before.
Every once in a while, one of these “influencers” gains a substantial voice in teenage culture. Recently, that voice has come in the form of a Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why. Since bursting on the scene less than a month ago, 13 Reasons Why has continued to increase in popularity and viewership amongst teens (it’s already the most tweeted-about show of all time), and can only be expected to gain more steam.
As teens’ social media became filled with this type of chatter about the show, we wanted to be informed on the new Netflix phenomenon, so we quickly binged. What we were about to watch – We were not prepared for.
Our goal in writing this isn’t to review the various aspects, episodes, and conversations throughout the show, but rather to make one thing perfectly clear…
This show is dangerous.
We’re confident that we won’t be the only ones to come to this conclusion. There will be plenty of blogs written about the dangerous aspects of this show – romancing suicide and revenge, a lack of focus on Hannah’s (the main character) own mental health, and the graphic display of a teenage culture seemingly void of any moral standing (portrayed through constant drinking, drugs, sex, rape, cursing, etc.) just to name a few.
While we agree that all of these pitfalls are dangerous and worthy of writing about, there are 2 underlying messages that aren’t as noticeable, but we heard them loud and clear – particularly because of the position we’re in and the main message we share with our teens.
Message 1: Treat others better. Be nicer. You never know what someone else is going through. Say “Hi.” Sit with the person sitting alone. Don’t talk about others…Or they might kill themselves.
Most will say that this is a “good” message for teens to hear – Just look at how brutal teenagers can be to each other! We agree – On the surface, it is a good message for teens to hear. Who wouldn’t want teens to be kinder to one another? Who wouldn’t want bullying to cease? Who doesn’t want everyone to get along?
But, we have to ask – what is the driving force underlying this message? Why should teens treat their peers better?
13 Reasons Why is a message driven by fear. We share a message driven by love.
As the show continues to gain popularity, we don’t doubt Youth Ministries and even churches will jump on the bandwagon to capitalize through wittingly produced series’ that will give 13 reasons how/why we should do more for others – 13 ways in which we can be better, nicer people.
But those messages are still birthed out of fear – the fear of not doing what we could or should have done and then living with the results, the fear of not doing enough, the fear of letting someone down – and out of that fear comes a tiresome, never-ending worry, second-guessing, and burden we could never (and were never meant to) carry.
The answer to the teenage issues presented in the show isn’t doing more. It isn’t being nicer in fear (If we’re honest, that’s what it is) because “you never know what the other person is capable of doing.” The answer is “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:18-19).
Our teens know they don’t need 13 reasons to treat others better.
They only need 1 – Nothing but Jesus.
If anything, this show should drive us as Youth Leaders, parents, and churches to stop it with this moralistic version of Christianity rooted in fear, and fully embrace learning, more and more, what Nothing but Jesus looks like and the true peace and rest it gives us. That’s what teens need to hear.
Message 2: Adults don’t get it – parents, counselors, teachers – they’re totally oblivious to what’s going on. They’ll never understand, and even if they did, they don’t actually want to help.
First off, we get it. Being a teenager is hard – arguably now more than ever, but 13 Reasons Why presents a hopeless situation totally void of any intervention or alternatives to Hannah’s final act.
In the last episode of the series, Hannah says she is going to “give life one more try.” As she meets with the school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, she rests what little hope she has left in his hands. As those who work with teenagers in a similar manner, we were anxious to see how he would be portrayed.
This scene was one of, if not the most frustrating scenes in the whole series. To avoid spoilers, let’s just say the interaction paints Mr. Porter in an extremely bad light.
He didn’t care enough about Hannah’s situation. He’s oblivious, unreasonable, and out of touch. He didn’t “get” Hannah either (like everyone else). His advice to Hannah was to just get over her troubles and move on. While her cries for help were all too vague, the counselor did nothing more than send her out the door with a “go get ’em” speech.
That’s how the lone adult figure with the opportunity to speak into Hannah’s life is presented? This was, frankly, an offense to us, so…
Here’s “our tape” to 13 Reasons Why…
We love and care deeply for all of the teenagers God has placed under us. We even love those who we don’t know yet, but God will bring to us in the future.
We want to share life with them, and will drop anything when they need us. We pray for them, rejoice with them, mourn with them, laugh with them, and cry with them.
They may think we don’t “get it” (and, sometimes, we might not). They may think we’re oblivious (and, sometimes, we are), but that does not translate into a lack of desire to help guide our young people.
And we know that’s OK – because we have the most effective and most powerful Truth you could ever imagine to share with them…
That “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Teens – we get you. We get everything you’re going through – Simply because we get Jesus, and he went through everything you go through.
And, most importantly, don’t forget that we love you because we know His love for us.
Thanks for listening to our tape.
Tyler and Gwen Schoenberger are the Youth and Young Adult Ministry Directors at Reach Church in Bear, DE.