The good news is that Netflix is adding a warning about “mature content” to its show 13 Reasons Why. The bad news is that parents are still going to have to pay attention to what their children are watching.
“If I’d known about the show beforehand I would have monitored her Netflix account a bit more,” one mother, a nurse, told the New York Times last week. “If kids have a history of depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts, I don’t think they need to watch it.” Actually, your kids don’t need any such history in order for you to think twice about letting them watch a show with graphic depictions of suicide and rape.
But if my conversations with other parents in recent weeks are any indication, most had no idea what their kids were watching to begin with. One mother told me her daughter came to her after a couple of episodes and told her she didn’t want to watch the show anymore. It was making her very upset. Another had no idea what the show was about until she saw a note from the school warning about it.
Indeed, what’s striking about these cases is that the kids are not trying to “sneak” inappropriate content. These are Netflix accounts that parents are paying for and that parents can filter. Yes, parents can see what their children have been watching after the fact. But most never bother to check.
Were things easier thirty years ago, when there were only a few channels, one television in the den and movie theaters that wouldn’t let kids under a certain age into adult movies? Of course. But parents today do have a lot of useful tools for trying to shield their kids from shows like 13 Reasons Why.
First, they can restrict access to screens. But even assuming that most parents don’t want to go to such lengths, there are still things we can do to protect our children from such programming.
Second, kids, particularly those in middle school and younger, should be required to ask about any new show or movie they want to watch. As parents, we actually have to listen to these requests and consider them carefully. That may mean not giving an answer immediately even if kids are impatient. Sites like Common Sense Media are very good for telling parents exactly what’s in any show or movie and then parents can decide whether graphic violence or depictions of sexual activity or drug use are appropriate for their children.
Whether kids come upon these shows by happenstance or because their friends are all watching them, the response generated by 13 Reasons Why should be a wakeup call. One mother told me that she had no idea her sixth grade daughter was watching the show; a few minutes later, the mother of a boy a year younger told me he only watches YouTube videos of people building things. She’s sure he’s never seen porn and wouldn’t be interested. Maybe she’s right, but after seeing what happened with 13 Reasons Why, if I were her, I wouldn’t take that bet.