Amusing Ourselves to Death...Literally: Youth, Moral Panics and Critical Media Literacy

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On March 31, 2017 Netflix released their thirteen-episode original series, 13 Reasons Why. The series, which was based on the 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher, was initially well-received by critics and audiences. However, 13 Reasons Why soon became the subject of controversy as school districts across the United States sent letters to parents and guardians raising concerns over the series’ depiction of suicide (Camera, 2017). Traditional and new media outlets also followed suit, publishing countless articles and stories about the potential dangers of 13 Reasons Why (Locke, 2017; Saint Louis, 2017; Tolentino, 2017). In response to the series, a group of high school students in Delaware launched a suicide prevention program called “13 Reasons Why Not” (Mahoney & Moore, 2017). While suicide prevention is an important issue that certainly deserves a space in public discourse, these reactions to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why series is reminiscent of past moral panics surrounding youth and media.

By adopting a critical media literacy approach, this paper explores the complicated and nuanced ways media shape individuals and society. Furthermore, critical media literacy provides the tools to examine the underlying themes in 13 Reasons Why that were often marginalized or ignored in the popular debate over the series. Through critical media literacy analysis 13 Reasons Why can be used as a timely case study that points to systemic social issues afflicting youth today and provides an avenue to engage youth in social activism through media culture.