27 April 2017
The Classification Office has created a new RP18 rating specifically for the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The classification recognises that teens are watching and will continue to watch the series, while signalling the strong content and emphasising the essential role of parents and caregivers in discussing this material with young people in their care.
The show 13 Reasons Why has caused controversy worldwide mainly for its treatment of teen suicide. The show – aimed at a teen and young adult audience – also includes bullying and intense violence, and strong scenes of sexual violence. Due to concerns about the show, the Chief Censor made use of his power to ‘call in’ and require classification of the series.
Some aspects of the show have received praise from groups such as the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, who have highlighted some positive messaging around consent and sexual violence in the show. The Mental Health Foundation New Zealand also identifies the series as an opportunity to raise awareness around youth suicide and mental health.
The Classification Office also discussed the series with teens aged 14-18. Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen says that:
All the teens we spoke to felt the show addressed issues that were relevant to them, and that the series overall had positive messages relating to social awareness: treating others with respect and compassion, and raising awareness about suicide, sexual violence, bullying, and other issues.
Nevertheless, there are real risks created by the portrayal of suicide in 13 Reasons Why. The suicide method is clearly shown – contravening established health guidelines and creating the potential for copycat behaviour. The real links between mental health and suicide are not discussed at all in the series. The choice of the lead character to kill herself is also portrayed quite fatalistically. In real life, most of those with suicidal thoughts recover, and do not go on to end their lives.
Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen:
These issues need to be talked about in a way that is informed and safe – parents, guardians and other adults need to have open conversations with teens about the issues raised by the show. Parents should use their judgement about whether their teen is ready to watch this show and then watch it with them. The series raises a lot of issues but often fails to fully address them, and it’s really important that trusted adults can step in at that point.
13 Reasons Why is classified RP18 with the following warning note: “Series deals with suicide, bullying and depression. Episodes may contain violence, sexual material, drug use, and frequent offensive language. Some episodes contain graphic depictions of suicide and rape”.
The RP18 classification recognises that 16 and 17 year-olds continue to be at high risk of suicidal thoughts, but also recognises that teens should continue to have access to the show with the support of the adults in their lives.
This blog post explains the classification in more detail: 13 Reasons Why - Our reasons for the RP18 classification
An RP18 classification means that someone under 18 years old must view the series with the supervision of a parent or guardian. A guardian could be a responsible adult (18 years and over), for example a family member or teacher who can provide guidance.
The series also poses a lot of questions for teens and young adults but provides few answers – leaving a lot open for interpretation. The portrayal of suicide and its aftermath in the series poses a real risk for teens who may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. So it is essential for young people to be able to discuss the show with at least one responsible adult in their lives.
The adults in 13 Reasons Why are often portrayed as unwilling or unable to talk to their teenagers about the way that they feel, including about difficult and challenging issues. This has predictably bad consequences for many of the young characters in the series.
New Zealand young people who watch this show need to know that it is essential to engage with a parent – or other responsible adult – in a meaningful way about the issues raised in 13 Reasons Why. New Zealand parents – and those looking after children also need to be aware that the subject matter of this series requires them to meaningfully engage with the young people in their care who watch this show.
Some of the teens spoken to by the Office said they would find it very uncomfortable to watch the series with their parents. This seemed to relate to the teen partying and ‘hook up’ behaviours portrayed in the series – which teens felt would be embarrassing to watch with their parents.
However, given that the series is presented on a video on-demand service (Netflix), parents and teens can now view the series on their own devices – and talk about the episodes as they go. What’s essential is that a parent or other responsible adult is aware that their teen is watching this series, watches this show at the same time (or ahead of) their teen – and (most importantly) talks through the issues covered in the series.
If your teen has already watched the show we recommend that you watch it yourself so that you can have a full discussion about the content of the show with them. If you or your teen need more help – then please contact one of the services listed below.
Setting a ‘hard’ age restriction like R16 or R18 means that it is illegal for people younger than these stated ages to view the series. 13 Reasons Why actually has a lot of merit for teens in that it discusses issues that are relevant to them, presents some positive messages and encourages them to think about the consequences of their actions. A restriction to those over 16 or 18 years would shut out a large proportion of the audience for this show – preventing these positive messages from reaching them.
We also have to be realistic and acknowledge that many teens will likely seek out a popular series like 13 Reasons Why. Especially since the series is highly accessible on a range of hand held devices – as well as larger screens. If and when they do seek out the show, teens need a classification that helps them to make a responsible decision by alerting them to seriousness of the content and to the fact that adults need to be involved.
The Government has determined that streaming services like Netflix do not need to submit their content in advance for classification. Netflix stopped submitting their content to the Classification Office in August 2016. Consequently we could not, as we have done in the past, classify this series before it was available and provide appropriate information on the risks for New Zealanders – particularly parents and teens.
We commenced the formal process of calling in the series for examination and classification as soon as we were aware of its potentially harmful content.
Also, even though the series has been available for some weeks, it is never too late to provide practical information and guidance for New Zealand parents and young people – especially for a popular series like 13 Reasons Why.
For more information see 13 Reasons Why: What you need to know – information from NZ Mental Health Foundation.