The New Zealand government has created a new rating for the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” that says a parent or guardian must be present when it is viewed by teens under 18.
The show revolves around a high school student, Hannah, who records 13 audiotapes before killing herself that name the people she believes are responsible for her death. While Netflix has content warnings before episodes with especially graphic or upsetting scenes, New Zealand’s new classification means that it will also need to display a warning about the entire series.
The country’s Office of Film and Literature Classification already had two ratings, RP13 and RP16, that restrict viewing for children under 13 and 16. A statement on the classification office’s blog said it considered using the RP16 rating, but “these classifications would not address the harm caused to 16 and 17 year olds (who are statistically at greater risk of suicide.” Instead, it created RP18 specifically for “13 Reasons Why,” but may use the rating again in the future.
Based on a novel by Jay Asher and produced by Selena Gomez, “13 Reasons Why” has been well-received by critics and viewers, but also triggered controversy for how it depicts sexual assault and suicide. In the United States, for example, educational organizations, including the National Association of School Psychologists and several public school districts, have issued warnings to parents about the show.
The classification office says it took action partly because New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates among the 35 countries in the OECD. While conceding that “13 Reasons Why” has “significant merit” for addressing difficult but important topics like suicide, rape, bullying, and slut-shaming, the classification office also said “the show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it. People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them. It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a ‘good enough’ reason for someone to commit suicide. This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.”
The office added that “’13 Reasons Why’ does not follow international guidelines for responsible representations of suicide. The scene depicting Hannah’s suicide is graphic, and explicitly about the method of suicide she uses, to the point where it could be considered instructional.”
New Zealand is not the first country that has tried to legislate teens’ behavior online. In 2015, Taiwan passed a law requiring parents to limit the amount of screen time kids under 18 get, while South Korea has had a “shutdown” law that forbids teenagers from playing online games between midnight and 6AM. But such laws are challenging to enforce and last year, South Korea revised the law to give parents more leeway.
Controlling what teenagers see online is, of course, extremely difficult, even with tools like Netflix’s parental controls. The difference between New Zealand’s rating and other laws that try to control what parents or guardians let their kids do online, however, is that the rating may actually prompt helpful discussions between adults and teens, even if many of them will still be watching whatever they want on Netflix without supervision.