I’ve begun watching 13 Reasons Why, because I have middle school-aged kids, because I work with teens, and because I wanted to learn what the discussions center around and why it has taken such center stage. Besides the frightening and risky elements that have been widely discussed, I see something else I think we need to notice and react to as a society: the culture of secrecy and isolation that the teenagers in this show inhabit. And which, I venture to say, many of us, in fact, inhabit as well.
First of all, in today's world have one of our most intimate relationships with our devices, and thusly with this world of false imagery, shallow interactions, and threatening sentiments (you are not enough, you are missing something).
On top of that, the independence preteens and teens have via these devices gives them an inflated sense of their own maturity and a desire to maintain that level of independence IRL, so to speak. On their phones and computers, they can say anything, be anyone, go anywhere. Notifications and texts beep in and take precedence over anything else that might be happening—classroom lectures, mealtime conversations, quiet moments.
They—and we—are conditioned through reinforcement, dopamine responses, and social learning to see their interactions, their impulses, their desires as paramount, and the other intervening factors as things to be managed. Manage the parents so I can meet the friend, manage the teacher so I can get back to my feed, manage my emotions so I can keep up with the group. And, from what I can tell about the number of pre-teens and teens who are binge-watching this show in secret, manage my supervision so I can watch 13 Reasons Why.
There is an opportunity for better or for worse, to learn from 13 Reasons Why’s huge popularity and the visceral button pushing it has effected, not just on teens but on adult viewers as well. How do we participate in and facilitate this culture of secrecy? What are we managing and neglecting in favor of our own satisfaction and comfort, or suffering from as a result of the influence and intimidation of our devices and feeds?
Finally, we should recognize 13 Reasons Why as a sad and scary illustration of what research has already told us about the rampant isolation in our population (youth and adult alike), escalating rates of disengagement, depression, anxiety, and suicide, and the rise of loneliness as the number one preventable cause of death nationwide (according to the Brookings Institute). And then we should ask ourselves what changes we can make—in our schools, in our parenting, in ourselves—that will interrupt these cycles, disrupt the power and hold our devices and streams have over our consciousness, and foster engaged and beneficial independence for our teens and true communication for us all.