During middle and high school, I struggled to find age-appropriate media to watch that actually made me feel good. Disney Channel began to feel too juvenile, while the more mature stuff was strangely dark. However, feeling all grown up at the ripe old age of thirteen and not wanting to watch kids TV anymore, I turned to the world of teen TV, conveniently provided to me in bingeable format on Netflix. Fresh out of the world of laugh tracks and one liners, I was suddenly thrown into the deep end of nearly every mature theme imaginable as I embarked on watching my first teen drama: Pretty Little Liars.
Me, age 13.
At first, I was enthralled--mystery, suspense, high school, and a catchy yet eerie theme song? I’d never watched anything like this before. But I soon found myself shocked by what I was seeing on screen. These kids were being stalked, doing dangerous and illegal things, and constantly in the thick of unrealistically dark drama. As engaging as it was, it began to weigh on me. The show began to creep into my daily life, affecting my mood in subtle ways. Finally, the day I finished eighth grade and escaped the pre-teen hell that is middle school, I froze in the middle of a celebratory Netflix binge. Staring at the Liars on the screen, I felt a gross feeling in the pit of my stomach. Out loud, I simply said, “No,” and promptly turned off the TV. I never turned the show back on again. I didn’t have the words to articulate it back then, but I had realized that the show was negatively impacting my mental health.
These dark themes are not unique to Pretty Little Liars. In fact, they run through nearly every popular teen show on TV. According to a 2016 study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “across more than 300 episodes of seventeen shows rated Y7 to MA, each contained at least one risk behavior like violence, smoking, alcohol, and sex. In shows made for teens and rated TV14 over 50 percent contained violence and sex while almost 75 percent featured alcohol.” This is all marketed to kids at a time when they are highly impressionable due to the developmental state of their brain. According to Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, the teenage brain is constantly molded by the stimuli it receives, and those stimuli can have a long-term impact on brain development and mental health.
During such a crucial time in development, why is the media pushing dark, stressful narratives that contain lots of high-risk behaviors onto teens? It feels as though these shows don’t consider the well-being of their audience while choosing the content of their stories.
Not only that, but they go on to cast actors that are way too old to play teenagers. This can be dangerous for teens’ mental health. Because the actors are disproportionately hot and all well past puberty, they can serve as a dangerously inaccurate point of comparison for actual teens. According to clinical psychologist and teen and family expert Barbara Greenberg, PhD in her interview with Teen Vogue, seeing these “teens” on TV that don’t share the physical struggles of the average teenager “leads to all kinds of body-image and social-comparison issues…And we know that social comparison can be a thief of joy.” The casting choices in these teen shows are damaging to teenagers’ self-image and mental health, yet these shows continue to do it anyway, presumably to hook in teenagers who think the characters are attractive.
KJ Apa as Archie Andrews in Riverdale
I mean come on, what high school freshman looks like THAT???
With all this information in mind, we must ask--who benefits from these teen dramas? Because based on all this data, it is most certainly not the teens themselves. It would seem that the media companies who promote and make money off of these teen shows are the primary beneficiaries, specifically Netflix and Buzzfeed. These two companies have a strange symbiotic relationship in which Netflix produces and/or promotes the teen drama shows, Buzzfeed writes articles about them, and then the articles send more people to watch the shows on Netflix. Which of course means Buzzfeed gets to write more articles about it. The cycle goes on and on in a never-ending loop de loop of clicks, views, and capitalism.
While this is an ongoing, easily observable pattern between the two companies, it is perhaps best exemplified in the case of 13 Reasons Why. If you are unfamiliar, this Netflix original show is about a high school girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes explaining why she did it. The show included graphic depictions of potentially triggering things such as rape and suicide, only adding trigger warnings after experiencing backlash.
This show also happens to have had an extremely devastating impact on adolescent mental health. According to a study published by the journal JAMA Psychiatry, after the show’s release, there was a recorded uptick in suicides in adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19. In the three months following the show’s release, there was a 13% increase in suicides for this age group, resulting in around 94 more suicides than would be expected during that time period. Despite this horrific impact, 13 Reasons Why was renewed for two more (equally graphic and triggering) seasons, and countless articles about it have been published on Buzzfeed.com. I’ve seen articles ranging from “Which 13 Reasons Why Character Are You?” quizzes to full-on critiques of the show and its contents. However, all these articles give the show publicity in one way or another, which in the end only benefits Netflix.
In the case of 13 Reasons Why, it becomes obvious that these two companies are far more concerned with attention and profit than with the impact of their content on their teen audiences. Yet these two companies hold a tremendous amount of power. It is ultimately unethical for them to exploit teen audiences for clicks and views while actively hurting their mental health. Netflix and Buzzfeed must be held accountable for the way their content affects their audiences and begin to produce and promote content that actually benefits the impressionable teens who consume it.
I know they are capable of it because Netflix created the show Never Have I Ever, which depicts teen life in a far more realistic way while dealing with themes such as grief, healing, friendship, relationships, sexuality, and culture.
If teen media shifted from the weird, dark contents of shows like Pretty Little Liars and towards the themes in Never Have I Ever, these media companies could change course and use their power and influence to make a positive impact on teens and their mental health!
Written by Katie Robinson