Parents Blame Children’s Deaths on 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why

The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has been out for more than three months now, but it’s still in the news for all the wrong reasons. Two California teens committed suicide in April, and their grieving parents are speaking out now, blaming 13 Reasons Why for their children’s deaths.

Bella Herndon hanged herself in her bedroom closet April 18. She died 10 days later without regaining consciousness—just three days away from her 16th birthday. Her father, John, has been desperately trying to squelch Netflix’s planned second season for 13 Reasons.

“I think Bella would [still be alive if she hadn’t watched this show]. It’s chilling to me that Selena Gomez, who worked with Disney making movies that families watched, steered her fan base to this,” he told In Touch, “Someone has to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’”

Priscilla Chui, 15, also killed herself shortly after watching the show. Her uncle and guardian, Peter Chui, said that Priscilla was battling depression, and that the show might’ve contributed to her death.

“I feel it’s dangerous for that small percentage of young adults who the show can become a trigger for them, and I feel as if the show gives only one alternative for cyber bullying and other teenage issues,” Peter told KTVU, a television station in Oakland, Calif.

Plugged In and its parent ministry, Focus on the Family, have been talking to parents about 13 Reasons Why for a while now, putting together a free resource for concerned moms and dads that might help them walk through the issues that the show deals with. I believe that the controversial show—and I don’t say this lightly—can be, quite literally, dangerous.

But as is so often the case when it comes to entertainment, the issues here are too complex simply to stop there.

Just as parents grieve lost children and point to 13 Reasons as a factor, some teens and young adults say that 13 Reasons saved their lives. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, author Jay Asher says he’s heard from many of those teens on his Myspace page:

The most common thing I’d hear was just “This book makes me more aware that even the small things I do can have an effect on people.” But I’ve also heard from teens who say, “I was suicidal when I picked up your book, and I identified with Hannah, and I wanted her to live.” When I started getting emails like that … I can’t even describe the feeling.

From what I’ve gathered in my research, Asher’s book seems to have precipitated more positive reactions, while the Netflix show has been viewed more as a greater negative influence.

Perhaps part of this can be explained by how the book and movie differ in depicting the suicide itself: The book doesn’t show it at all. We know that Hannah killed herself, but the act itself takes place “offscreen,” if you will. But in the Netflix program, the act is shown in graphic, excruciating and some say instructional detail. Mental health experts point to that scene, more than any other, as why Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is so misguided and dangerous.

I wonder, too, if we simply process books and television shows differently. Books can often impact us more than movies or television in some ways, because we interact with that medium so much more intimately. But books also allow us to work through the material and digest it at our own pace. With movies and television, the pace is set for us. The images we see—also not of our own choosing—are crammed into our psyche with very little input even possible from us.

But there’s also this: What we bring to our entertainment is just as important and influential as what our entertainment brings to us.

It’s rather trite to say that we’re all very different people, but it’s true. And that’s really important to remember when it comes to media discernment. Our memories and experiences shape us. We carry different baggage and bear different scars. We’re made up of our own unique collection of stories. As such, we react uniquely to the stories we watch and read and listen to. A movie that may resonate deeply with me might leave you cold. A television show that might shake you to the core might feel shallow to your best friend. We don’t react to entertainment with uniformity.

That why at Plugged In, we try to unpack the content and leave the decision to watch or not to watch up to you. We don’t know your 8-year-old son or 14-year-old daughter, after all: You do. You’ll know, far better than we do, what moves them, scares them or might lead them in a problematic direction.

When it comes to a story like 13 Reasons Why, it’s all the more critical for parents to know their children well—to be willing to have important, sometimes difficult, conversations with them. It’s critical for parents to know not only what their children are watching but, when possible, to watch it with them so that you can talk about what’s being depicted there.

Entertainment is incredibly influential, and it seems as though its influence grows with each passing day. But parents, your influence dwarfs that of any movie or television show, any album or video game. They may not always show it, but your kids care what you think. They’re depending on you to help lead them into adulthood. And that means both guiding and speaking into the entertainment they consume.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Evan Weisensel More than 1 year ago
Honestly, I think it's more the parent's responsibility to talk with their kids about whether or not they can handle the show than it is Netflix's job to remove it in my opinion. If you believe that you or your child won't benefit ore will be harmed by viewing this show, then don't view it. Some people have benefited from watching this series and I think that's great, it could really be used as a force for good to get the ball rolling on a long overdue conversation on mental health in teenagers. I'm not planning on watching due to fear that it could bring up some bad recent memories, but if you feel that you and your kids can handle the subject matter presented here, knock yourself out and hopefully it'll lead to a positive conversations and change in the future.
Evan Weisensel More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

Having struggled (and still struggling) with depression and suicidal thoughts, I have almost wanted to watch the show before. Of course I don't support it and, if it really came down to it, wouldn't watch it, but I feel like maybe seeing someone else struggling with these things and identifying with how they feel might help me not feel so alone.
AsayPaul More than 1 year ago
You're not alone, Peggy. I've had (and still have) issues with depression, too. Unfun. I don't think most of us make very good use of the resources out there to help, but there are plenty ... Focus on the Family (of which Plugged In is a part) has a counseling number ... 1-855-771-HELP (4357). My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

Thank you so much, I appreciate it a lot! :)
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
As someone who has considered suicide before, I can see why a melodramatic series about how "important" a suicidal girl is after her death (it becomes all about remembering her, figuring out her mystery, unraveling the truth -- the kind of emotional spotlight people who think no one cares about them might crave) might appeal to depressive personalities; they might feel that when they're dead, THEN people will care. And mourn them. And be upset. And give them attention.

I don't believe in blanket censorship but I agree, shows like this can wage war on depressive-inclined personalities.

Hannah, for me, was an unlikable protagonist. I felt compassion for her, but she had endless opportunities to talk about what was happening with her -- and instead, she chose suicide, and to blame her own life choices on everyone around her.
seraph_unsung More than 1 year ago
I really appreciated your being fair and evenhanded in writing this article, Paul, especially this part: "But as is so often the case when it comes to entertainment, the issues here are too complex simply to stop there." ~ as opposed to simply blindly defending or unilaterally condemning the show. (Disclaimer: I have not watched the show. I read the book.  And I appreciate your honesty about the book's arguably comparatively tactful approach to its subject matter as well.  "Pills" are mentioned.  We're not told which ones or in what amounts.)
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
A child shoots another child staying at their house with a gun. Well screw the second amendment, let's ban all guns! Oh wait, you guys like your guns, it's free speech you hate. So sorry. 
Stop blaming a TV show instead of the real issues: bullying, mental illness, and bad parenting. If a child is serious about doing this, they will do it whether this show is on the air or not. 
bobed More than 1 year ago
What a silly and utterly confused argument. If a TV show is not only glamorizing suicide but is also giving kids a how-to guide on committing the act, we need to step in and protest. This should not even be a debate.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
There are plenty of how-to guides out there on the internet and they are very easy to find. Suicide was a huge problem in this country long before this show came out, but now it's just a convenient thing for you to blame rather than looking at the real issues at play here. Correlation does not prove causation. Just because a couple kids killed themselves after watching this show does not mean the show caused them to do it.
bobed More than 1 year ago
Many people struggle with diabetes, but the disease can be managed. However, if we discovered that there was a certain type of food out there that was meant to help diabetics, but instead was killing some of them while sparing would be a faulty product and WE WOULD GET RID OF IT. This is the same situation, only the diabetics are mentally ill kids, the "certain type of food" is 13 Reasons Why, and there IS NO excuse. 

Why are you defending this show, I wonder? The show that carefully listened to the advice of experts on mental illness on how to handle this subject...and then proceeded to ignore every single one of their recommendations, up to and including showing the girl's suicide onscreen in a scene that reads like an instructional video? This series is nothing more than poison for kids. Why would you defend it? Honest question, because I'm dumbfounded, especially as a father of teenage girls.
Inkfeather1 . More than 1 year ago
I defend it because people like you are being ridiculous. How about this: nearly 2,000 children between the ages of 0-17 have been killed by guns this year. Is this a good enough reason in your opinion to repeal the second amendment and take all guns? How about car accidents, should we ban cars? But oh, two kids commit suicide after watching a stupid TV show and suddenly we have the right to stomp on their first amendment rights? You sound like a liberal SJW right now. Anything that could possibly trigger our delicate sensibilities must be censored, rather than us sitting down and actually having a conversation with our children.
bobed More than 1 year ago
How disgusting. Even worse is that this was PREDICTED by many people, but no one in power had the spine to do anything about it! Parents, I beg you: monitor what your kids watch - especially the more sensitive ones - and do NOT let them watch this harmful show!! This could not get any more serious - this insidious TV series is literally putting the welfare of children at risk. 
Evan Weisensel More than 1 year ago
Dude, take an entire bag of chill pills please. It's for the best of all of us here.