Netflix has released the second season of its original series, “13 Reasons Why,” which addresses teenage suicide and bullying in a high school setting. Netflix also released the rom-com “The Kissing Booth” this month, which follows the story of Elle, a teenager with no boy experience, who ends up in a secret relationship with her best friend’s older brother (who also happens to be her long-time crush).
Although wildly different in terms of content and genre, both releases should cause alarm bells to sound. Both depict teen struggles and issues related to sex, bullying, and puberty in an overly dramatic and potentially harmful manner to anyone who watches them, but especially those in the high school audience the shows are geared toward.
Netflix is the number one streaming service among millennials in the U.S., and a recent study shows that 89 percent of millenials watch the majority of their TV on Netflix. With the dawn of their release of original shows and movies, Netflix only grew in popularity. They introduced a new norm to teen media content. Some of the content is edgy and controversial.
“13 Reasons Why” received criticism after its first season in 2017 for its depiction of teenage suicide. It tells the story of Hannah Baker, a bullied teen who commits suicide. She leaves behind 13 tapes to be shared amongst those who she blames for her demise. The show was accused of recklessly handling a sensitive topic and possibly inciting a “contagion effect” among teens struggling with depression and suicidal tendencies. Brook Fox, a licensed psychotherapist wrote a blog post about the first season, calling it a “suicide revenge fantasy” that teaches teens to give up their power to others instead of finding resilience in the face of hardship.
Executive producer Selena Gomez responded to critics by saying that show does more good than harm, and used her own struggle with depression to back her point of view. However, in an interview with Verily Magazine, Fox said that she disagrees: “This series could’ve shown the signs and symptoms of all of these mental health issues and watched Hannah’s intense struggle,” she said. “Instead the series failed to raise the issues of mental health awareness by not even mentioning mental health troubles.”
Season 2 only addresses these concerns with a bandaid fix. The show starts with a PSA from the cast, warning viewers that the show might not be for them, and offering a website related to the show that provides help for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. This feeble attempt does not make up for the fact that the content of this new season remained overly graphic and disturbing, culminating in a tragic scene in the final episode, in which a young man is sodomized with a mop handle by school bullies.
“The Kissing Booth” (on the other hand) unlike the grave and weighty subject matter in “13 Reasons Why,” is supposed to be a light, comedic depiction of first love. Young Elle Evans has been best friends with Lee Flynn since birth, but harbors a secret crush on his troubled older brother, Noah. Elle is awkward and inexperienced with boys, but she starts to receive attention due to her changing body, which insights a jealous and possessive Noah to profess his infatuation for Elle.
All of this is set to cute music and romantic lighting, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that Noah only views Elle as a prize to be had and that his affection doesn’t appear to come from a genuine place. She wasn’t on his radar until her womanly figure emerged, and he makes it clear that he didn’t want to fall for her. The rest of the movie is a montage of the teens sneaking around and hiding their relationship from Lee, taking long walks on the beach and having sex.
The lighthearted tone and young love plot are dampened by the fact that the movie revolves around boys possessing and objectifying Elle. She is a prize to be won, and her value increases as she changes into a woman. The movie takes a misguided story and wraps it in a bow, sending an unfortunate message to its audience that is a cautionary tale at best.
Presumably Netflix is releasing teen-oriented content with the intention of relating to young people, who could learn valuable life lessons or be incited as a result into meaningful discussions about real-world problems and solutions. But “13 Reasons Why” and “The Kissing Booth” are not teaching good lessons or provoking the right kind of discussions, regardless of the intention of the show creators. Netflix would do well to be cognizant of the messages allowed to stream on its massive platform, and consider the potential harm some of them could be doing to vulnerable kids who use the service.
The streaming service’s influence cannot be ignore. Netflix has the power to use its platform to elevate the conversation and empower teens to deal with the tough challenges of adolescence, without scarring and misguiding them.