Parenting in the age of social media: Focus on Netflix's '13 Reasons Why'

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A scene from 13 Reasons Why: A Netflix Original.

Spurred by the highly controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why , Springboard, Teens@JUF , Jewish Child & Family Services (JCFS), and Madraigos Midwest hosted two parent programs about "Parenting in the Age of Social Media."

Both events, hosted at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview, and then repeated at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview, featured a panel of experts from the Jewish community who spoke on the topics of adolescent development, and mental and spiritual health in the digital age.  

Based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why depicts the carefully plotted suicide of teen protagonist Hannah Baker, who, prior to taking her own life, records a series of 13 cassette tapes identifying individuals whom she deems responsible for her death. The reasons Hannah cites in her tapes range from arguments over boys, to sexual assault, to indifferent mental health professionals who ignore her when she expresses suicidal feelings.

The series, according to executive producer and actor/singer Selena Gomez, is meant to take on the topics of bullying and assault, demonstrating the cumulative and lasting effects of seemingly small, every day aggressions. However, experts argue that 13 Reasons Why conveys another, very dangerous message: that suicide is not only a reasonable answer to one's suffering, but that through suicide, a person can gain closure and the upper hand over those who cause them pain.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 10-24. This message, among others, puts young adults at risk of committing "copycat suicides" and self-harmful behaviors.

Ultimately, 13 Reasons Why is an extremely grave and graphic show, with themes that most adolescents do not have the tools to process on their own. According to panelist Tracey Lipsig Kite, LCSW, social worker at Jewish Child & Family Services, the issues are particularly challenging for teens, as "adolescents have a harder time exerting cognitive control in dangerous situations" because their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls logical thinking) is at its slowest stage of development.

This leaves middle and high school students without adequate tools to address the social, academic, and hormonal stressors facing them during adolescence, putting them at risk for irrational behavior when processing their emotions.

"There is extraordinary pressure on them to succeed and achieve," says Robin Stein, LCSW, director of Response Center, "and all of those factors can lead to stress." Moreover, the cumulative effect of those stressors can be compounded by the ever-presence of social media; wherever a smart phone can go, school work, troubled relationships, cyberbullies and other difficult-to-process issues can follow.

In the digital age, it is especially important for parents to "set limits while still honoring their [child's] autonomy, in age-and person-appropriate ways," explains Lipsig Kite. Similarly, approaching the subject of 13 Reasons Why requires parents to demonstrate both authority over and respect for their children.

"If you can," explains Dana Hirt, founder of Dana Hirt Parenting, "I believe it is the best scenario for you to watch [ 13 Reasons Why ] with your kids…even if they've already seen it…Take time to watch an episode at a time and explore the themes with your kids."  Pausing the show after powerful scenes, and limiting viewings to one episode at a time, allows parents to control the way in which the show is viewed while also leaving room for discussion. "Don't be afraid to share your thoughts with your kids; be honest," assures Hirt, "you don't have to know all of the answers."

"When you have a show this dynamic, this engaging, this graphic, it gives us quite an opportunity to have some very serious conversations," says Rabbi Yehuda Polstein. "We are commanded as a people…to 'guard your soul'…your overall mental and spiritual well-being," continues Polstein, who believes that never before has that goal been more attainable to the Jewish people than it is today. "Every month there are more programs, more services available to our children," to support them as they grow and develop," he says. '" Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor '-it is not your job to do alone."

13 Reasons Why raises many difficult issues, and the greater Jewish community has the resources to help families address those questions together.

To view the recording of the first panel, visit: https://youtu.be/Af4kIkme35o

  This event is sponsored by Springboard, Teens@JUF , Response Center, JCFS, Madraigos Midwest, Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, Am Shalom, Am Yisrael, Beth Hillel Congregation B'nai Emunah, Congregation B'nai Tikvah, Darchei Noam of Glenbrook, NSS Beth El, North Shore Congregation Israel, Congregation Solel, KAM Isaiah Israel, Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Moriah Congregation, Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School, Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School, Chicago Jewish Day School, Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School, National Council of Jewish Women Chicago North Shore Section, BBYO, NCSY, NFTY, USY, CFJE, JCC, Moving Traditions, and No Shame on U.

Jenna Cohen serves as Grants and Planning Associate for Jewish Child & Family Services and is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area.

"Don't be afraid to share your thoughts with your kids; be honest. You don't have to know all of the answers."



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