Recently released research affirms the concerns raised by parents, educators and critics regarding the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The dark drama about teen suicide, depression, and sexual assault is targeted at young people. It has been criticized because it addresses the real life challenges teens face in an “entertainment” format, clearly not the best manner in which to address such harsh topics.
Researchers at the University of Michigan, publishing in the journal Psychiatric Services, studied 87 teens who had been treated in psychiatric emergency departments. Nearly half of these teens had at some point viewed the show. Almost all viewed the show alone, with no adult guidance on how to cope. The teens reported they discussed the show with teen peers as opposed to parents, and over half believe the series increased their suicide risk.
These findings show a formula for disaster, not that an eyebrow would be raised in Netflix’s corporate headquarters. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was questioned about the show at a stockholder meeting this year, he callously dismissed the concern, replying, “Nobody has to watch it.” But teens are watching it, some of whom struggle with the dark content. Note to Hastings: nobody has to produce such dangerous content, either.
Netflix has become the indisputable darling of the entertainment establishment and the video world. Trendy adults declare their “cool” status by bragging about how much Netflix content they have binge-watched. Broadcast networks and movie theaters are ancient outposts for cultural content.
Netflix now produces more film and television content than any other outlet. Entertainment industry peers in Hollywood adore Netflix, making the streaming giant the leader in Emmy nominations. Along with great popular and financial success, however, should be some corporate responsibility and a moral compass. Netflix still needs work in those categories. Stopping production of “13 Reasons Why” would be a good place to start.
Netflix has also become the location for some of the most culturally bankrupt television content ever produced. A prime example of such noxious Netflix content is the series “Big Mouth,” an animated program about a seventh grade boy, Andrew, who is going through puberty. Andrew is followed around by a “Hormone Monster” whose nose is designed to look like male genitalia. Suffice it to say that the story lines and language are quite coarse, sexualizing young teens in crude ways as entertainment.
It is not clear whether Netflix and the producers of “Big Mouth” are trying to attract an adult audience with sexualization of children or they intend the graphic content for the kids themselves. Whatever the motivation, shame on them. The broader culture is the loser.
Even the show’s creator, Nick Kroll, acknowledges its ethically vacuous nature. He said in an interview, “Yes, I believe that the show is incredibly dirty,” rationalizing, “But your 13-year-old is very likely watching or has access to much more crazy, dirty, and disgusting things on the Internet.”
Another Netflix series, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” had an episode featuring a group of thinly clad teens in a steamy orgy scene. The show is obviously targeted at teens, but contains adult themed content. This show should not be confused with a previous broadcast offering, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” but young viewers wouldn’t necessarily understand that before stumbling into an orgy scene.
Yet another Netflix offering is the international series called “Desire,” which last year had an episode depicting a nine-year-old girl stimulating herself to orgasm. Need more? Netflix’ latest edgy “entertainment” series, “Baby,” is a drama about teen prostitution. The National Center of Sexual Exploitation has blasted the show for glamorizing teen sex trafficking. Netflix’ unnecessary normalization of hyper-sexualized content targeted at young audiences is culturally reckless and exploitive.
Netflix thinks it can blunt criticism by pointing to the parental controls in its service. Having a four-digit pin, however, won’t prevent teens from accessing inappropriate content. Some parents don’t even set up the parental controls. In other cases, teens just access the content on portable devices away from parents’ view. Even with parental controls in place, however, kids can still see titles for adult-themed programs on menu pages where children’s content is promoted alongside the adult content.
Of course, Netflix operates in a media sphere protected by the First Amendment. It can basically produce whatever it wants. As a streaming service, it is not subject to any oversight for indecency from the Federal Communications Commission. Its content is not advertiser supported, so there is no concern about financial pressures from external sources. Netflix is subject to no content barometer other than its own corporate conscience. Perhaps Netflix could use some of its four billion dollar quarterly revenue to invest in corporate responsibility.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_McCall