When 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, I scrolled right past it after reading the brief summary. A teenager commits suicide and leaves behind a set of tapes to all those who are complicit, explaining why she killed herself, and what role each one of them had to play in her decision. So far, so depressing, I thought, as I clicked on the latest season of Grace and Frankie and binge-watched it through the night.
Then, a week later, when I was at a loose end, I idly clicked on 13 Reasons Why (adapted from Jay Asher’s bestselling 2007 novel of the same name), thinking I would check out an episode or two to see if it was really as good as all the critics insisted. And before you could say Hannah Baker, I was hooked. Don’t worry, I am not going to post any spoilers here. Suffice it to say that this is addictive viewing and I highly recommend that you do it over the weekend.
But as I watched the world of teenage angst unfold before me, with all its dramas and fights, its hormone-fuelled rages and passions, its friendships and enmities, I was reminded of just how tough those years between 16 and 20 can be. When you are finding out who you are, trying on different personas to see which one fits, falling in love for the first time, breaking your own heart or the hearts of others, falling out with friends, bullying or being bullied. It’s like being on a rollercoaster of emotions, and what’s worse is that you experience it with that heightened intensity that is a hallmark of teenagedom.
As I binge-watched (yes, again) in fascinated horror, I found myself feeling grateful that I had grown up in the era that I did. Because, hand on heart, I would not be a teenager in today’s world for all the money in the world. Why, you ask. Well, because while technology (read Google) has made it easier to do homework or research a project, social media has actually made our kids’ lives much more distressing and complicated.
Consider this. In the days before the Internet, our only lifeline to our friends was the telephone. So, we would sit by it for hours, chatting incessantly, while our mothers impatiently gestured for us to get off. And on the days when it didn’t ring, our lives would be miserable. Did no one care about us? Why didn’t anybody call? If it was a boyfriend/girlfriend who had neglected to phone, our misery would be multiplied manifold.
Now, consider the many ways in which the teenagers of today can experience the same anguish of rejection. They could be blocked on Snapchat, have their Instagram images languish with just a dozen likes, see images of parties on Facebook to which they have not been invited, be bullied on Twitter, and slut-shamed on any one of these virtual platforms.
Breakups are hard enough when you are a teenager but to have them play out publicly, as you unfollow each other on social media, or even see images of your ex with their new partner, can be even more traumatic. What’s worse is there is the ever-present temptation to turn into a virtual stalker, torturing yourself with how fast your ex has moved on while you are still in mourning for what you’ve lost.
Then, there is the constant pressure to look good because, you know, selfies! You must be constantly camera-ready, pout firmly in place, hair styled to perfection, and cleavage on display – and that’s just the guys. The girls need washboard abs and slimming apps (not to mention special filters) to look like those supermodels who have taken over Instagram in their itsy-bitsy bikinis.
If you don’t fit in with this new prescription of beauty and glamour, then prepare to be body-shamed and bullied. In fact, if you don’t conform in any way at all, be prepared to be targeted by bullies, both in real life and in cyberspace, where the cloak of anonymity facilitates the generation of greater bile and venom. And when you can’t see or identify your tormentors, the attacks leave you feeling even more helpless and disempowered.
And then, there is the new face of romantic relationships in an age where most teenagers have seen hardcore porn before they ever experience their first kiss. Where we would have sent an erotic love letter, the teenagers of today feel compelled to share sexy selfies. Instead of talking dirty on the phone, they indulge in sexting, exchanging naked pictures, which often become the stuff of revenge porn when relationships end (as they inevitably do, at that age).
In 13 Reasons Why, it is a unfortunate picture taken of Hannah Baker and circulated through the school that starts the chain of events that leads to her suicide. And the scary part is that, as I was watching it, I could see just how easily it could happen to one of our own kids. Just one moment in time, just one little indiscretion, one instant of letting down your guard, trusting in that one wrong person, can have unspeakable consequences.
Honestly, who would be a teenager in today’s world? I certainly wouldn’t. And nor, I suspect, would most of our kids.
From HT Brunch, April 16, 2017
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