’13 Reasons Why’ highlights latest challenge for parents in a streaming world

'13 Reasons' highlights streaming challenges for parents

TORONTO — Annie Boucher is coming to terms with parenting in the Netflix era.

The Ottawa-based mom had to do her homework when her 12-year-old daughter asked to watch the streaming service’s controversial new teen drama “13 Reasons Why.”

Boucher heard about the show rattling educators and captivating students with its depictions of suicide and sexual assault, but hadn’t seen it for herself.

Before giving her daughter permission to start the series, she wanted to thoroughly examine its content by embarking on the monumental task of squeezing all 13 episodes into her schedule.

“If I’m making a coffee I’ll spend like three minutes watching it or if I’m having lunch I’ll spend 15 minutes,” she says. “I’m kind of piecing it together…. As a parent you can’t binge watch anything.”

Boucher finally made it through the episodes a couple of days ago. Now she plans to revisit the climactic, graphic finale alongside her daughter to discuss it.

Hopefully, she says, that will prepare the girl for the inevitable conversations she’ll encounter in school hallways. Already her classmates are dissecting the specifics of each pivotal scene.

Yet Boucher acknowledges that “13 Reasons Why” doesn’t stand alone.

While potentially objectionable shows broadcast on TV, like “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” are easier for parents to stay on top of with weekly instalments, the arrival of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video changed everything.

Instead of revealing an episode per week, the streaming platforms dump an entire season in one fell swoop.

And parents are finding themselves overwhelmed by the mounting quantity of content.

“Every day I log in and there’s a new series,” Boucher says.

“It used to be that everybody would talk about the same thing, now you don’t even know there’s a phenomenon like ’13 Reasons Why.'”

Many parents felt blindsided by the series, which arrived in late March and exploded in popularity almost immediately, driven by social media buzz from its executive producer Selena Gomez and an established awareness as a 2007 youth adult novel.

Its storyline focuses on a high school student who kills herself and leaves behind 13 cassette tapes outlining events that pushed her to make the decision. Some of the more intense moments visualize rape, substance abuse and cyber bullying.

Hetty Alcuitas hadn’t heard of the show until Facebook posts started appearing from concerned parents. When someone explained the most troubling scenes to her, she asked her 16-year-old daughter whether she’d watched the episodes.

Alcuitas was surprised to learn her daughter had already finished the series.

“I do want to watch it, but it’s like, ‘Oh my god, do I have time?'” says the single mom who lives in New Westminster, B.C.

While Netflix classifies the series with a mature rating, not all parents have activated the service’s content filter. That means a weekend binge through all of the episodes could go almost undetected on a user’s account — unless parents dig into their viewing history. 

It’s one of the reasons why numerous schools across the country have alerted parents about the series and its content. Some have even asked parents to notify their children that “13 Reasons Why” shouldn’t be discussed on school grounds.

Kathy Short, director of School Mental Health Assist, an organization supporting mental health in Ontario schools, sent a note to school boards saying the Netflix series shouldn’t be used as a “teaching tool.”

Short says while most teenagers will be able to handle what’s depicted on the show, not everyone is prepared for the topics it addresses.

“It’s the young person who’s already not feeling well, maybe is feeling alone, and picks up some of these messages having binge watched it alone at 2 in the morning — those are the kids we’re worried about,” she says.

“The ways these sorts of products are coming to us allows for more risky and insular ways of accessing it.”

Matthew Johnson, director of education at media literacy agency MediaSmarts, recently spoke with a school librarian who learned just how quickly “13 Reasons Why” caught fire among teens.

“Every one of the kids had seen it by the time their parents asked about it,” he said. “In many cases the entire series.”

Johnson credits part of the viral spread to social media, which he says can be a boon for streaming video series.

“They really do rely on people talking about them,” he said.

“(Streaming companies) are not really beholden to advertisers. They can go for a more niche audience which means they can push the envelope in ways that network shows can’t.”

Fizziology, a research firm dedicated to social media data, found the series was tweeted about more than any other Netflix show during its first week. Nearly 3.6 million tweets were posted, surpassing the previous record holder “Chasing Cameron,” a reality show based on a social media celebrity, which generated 1.3 million tweets in the same time span.

With Netflix’s biggest foray into edgy teen content making such an impact, it’s almost certain other producers will take notice.

In the meantime, the streaming service hopes to show parents it’s taking their concerns seriously.

Netflix says it plans to add more content warnings to “13 Reasons Why” and strengthen the language on its existing advisories.

Boucher is enacting her own form of filtering. After discussing the show with her daughter, they agreed to fast-forward through the intense scenes of sexual assault.

“She doesn’t want to watch any of that,” she says.

 

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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