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Does ’13 Reasons Why’ Accurately Capture Today’s Teen Culture?

Why is ’13 Reasons Why’ such a hit with young folks?  Perhaps it’s because the show accurately captures a lot of what it’s like to be a teen today.  So, what are the current trends with teen culture?

Netflix’s newest sensation is sparking a larger conversation around suicide, rape, and bullying.  In our multi-part series on 13 Reasons Why, one mental health professional will explore the psychological aspects presented in the show.  Next up: Does ’13 Reasons Why’ Accurately Capture Today’s Teen Culture?

Despite the show’s flaws and my reservations about its decision to show a graphic suicide, ’13 Reasons Why’ is a hit and trending among young folks.  I’ve read several think pieces that praise the show its accurate portrayal of teenage life and angst.  Which begs the question, what are the current trends in teen culture?  What is it like to be a teen in 2017?

“Bye Bye Childhood!”

One of the biggest developments for childhood and adolescence is that puberty is occurring earlier than in past generations.  Girls are starting puberty around age 11 and boys around age 12.  But more and more girls are starting to develop as early as age 7.  One of the biggest drawbacks of earlier puberty is that emotional disruption is happening at an earlier age – which some speculate could be contributing to the rise of anxiety, depression, and suicide rates in teenagers.

“Look at Me, I’m Special!”

Today’s teens have a pretty high view of themselves.  Self-reported rates of narcissism are skyrocketing.  We’re seeing some of the highest rates in the last 50 years. Narcissism refers to an inflated view of the self, coupled with relative indifference to others.  People who are high in this trait fail to help others unless there is immediate gain or recognition to themselves for doing so.  The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy.  Empathy involves the capacity and tendency to experience life not just from one’s own point of view but also from that of others, and to care about others’ wellbeing.  Approximately 70 percent of students today score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than the average student did thirty years ago.

“I’m Actually Quite Responsible.”

Despite earlier the earlier onset of puberty, fewer teens are smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, binge drinking, or getting into a vehicle of a driver who has been drinking.  Teens are also waiting to engage in sexual activity, and since 1993, there has been a substantial decline in nearly all forms of youth violence.

“I’m so Stressed Out!”

According to APA’s 2013 Stress In America survey, teenagers are the most stressed-out age group in U.S.  They are worried about getting into college, paying for college, and what the future holds for their careers and future.  Yet, it’s never been a better time to go to college.  In fall 2014, 21 million students expected to attend American colleges and universities, a 5.7 million increase since fall 2000.  But higher enrollment isn’t translating into higher graduation rates.  Only 1 out of 3 college students graduate in 4 years, and only 60% complete their 4-year degree … in 6 years!  Childhood may be happening earlier, but adulthood seems to be starting later.

The mixture of emotional disruption, entitlement, and stress has contributed to a generation of teens that vacillate between overly sensitive and alarmingly self-aware.  Rates of depression and anxiety are rising amongst the teen demographic.  One out of four high school students have shown mild symptoms of depression, including:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Deviations from normal appetite or sleep patterns

This era of “instant gratification” has led to a decrease in what therapists call “frustration tolerance” and how we handle upsetting situations.’13 Reasons Why’ has received criticism for not showing positive portrayals of getting help.  And yet, only 30% of depressed teens are being treated for it, despite the destigmatizing of mental illness among younger folks.

“I Don’t Drink Much, But I Started Early!”

Despite positive trends with alcohol use among teens, the age of first use continues to drop.  According to the Harvard Health Publications. “Teenage Drinking,” the average starting age for drinking is 11 for boys and age 13 for girls.  The average age of first marijuana use is 14.  The three leading causes of death for 15 to 24-year-olds are automobile crashes, homicides and suicides – alcohol is a leading factor in all three.

“I Don’t Tolerate Intolerance!”

This generation is the most inclusive and diverse in the history of American teens.  ’13 Reasons Why’ accurately represents that diversity.  The show avoids depicting one-dimensional representation of characters.  The queer/gay characters are not saints or villains, and their sexuality isn’t their sore defining characteristic.  Characters of different ethnicities are given complexity and nuance.  Zach, one of the primary Asian characters, is the star basketball player, something I don’t remember seeing in television or film.

Some might argue that the cast is overly PC, but that would be missing the point.  The point is that what adults and grown-ups may view as a PC casting ploy most teens see as an accurate reflection of their subculture or what they aspire for their high school communities.

“Let’s Chat … Text Me!”

The average teen spends more than 63 hours a week in front of a screen.  Because of multi-tasking, teens pack over 11 hours’ worth of media content into their 9 hours of daily screen time.  The show captures the normalizing of sexualized material over smartphones.  Forty-four percent of teens report sending or receiving a sexually explicit text, and 20% of teens report they have received a nude photo.

Reasons

Whether it is quickly spreading photos of Hannah (or Tyler) or folks getting upset that people aren’t replying to their dozens of texts (probably sent over the course of a few minutes), more and more teens are communicating through devises and not face-to-face.  ’13 Reasons Why’ captures the tech-dependent lives of teens.

“Who Can I Go To When I Need Help?”

Mr. Porter is depicted as a caring individual despite the egregious errors he makes with counseling Hannah.  His professional shortcomings cannot be overlooked, but I did feel sympathy for Mr. Porter as a school counselor, because it’s one of the hardest jobs.

School counselors often are an academic counselor, a social/emotional counselor, and a college guidance counselor.  That’s a lot of different hats to wear.  And America is facing a significant shortage of school counselors. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a ratio of 250 students to 1 counselor – only three states meet that ratio.  The national average is double the recommended ratio, at 500:1.  For some states, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students per single school counselor.

“It’s Hard to Talk to Mom and Dad, Even If I Want To!”

I previously wrote about how the show accurately captures the significance of communication.  I think the show accurately captures how difficult and uncomfortable it can be for families to openly talk about the stressors and hardships of teenage life.  Parent can come across to their teen as aloof and uncaring.  But what if they’re trying to give their kid space and autonomy? Teens can come across to parents as entitled and unappreciative?  But what if their focus and attention is heavily fixated on the problems of their peers?  Or their own challenges?  What if life is so taxing that they have little left to offer their family.

Most conflict between parents and adolescents/teens is not intense.  Conflict is often over mundane issues.  Most families do not report the teen years as a predominant period of rebellious behavior and extreme levels of conflict.

“Why Did Adults Wait Until ’13 Reasons Why’ Came Out to Ask How I Am Doing?”

At the end of the day, ’13 Reasons Why’ is a fictional show. It cannot be expected to fully capture the teen experience.  However, the amount of coverage and criticism that the show is experiencing will hopefully raise awareness on other trends that are happening with teens.

Check out previous articles of this multi-part series where I explored:

And next up to conclude the series:  Praiseworthy or problematic?  13 final thoughts about ’13 Reasons Why’

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

About the author

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC

Jonathan Hetterly, LPC

Jonathan Hetterly is a therapist, writer, and pop culture addict. He’s also a contributor to The Shrink Tank podcast. Follow him at @jhetterly and @shrink_tank.

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