Battling videos that devalue life

May 08, 2017 09.00AM |
 

by Brenda Tan

ON LABOUR Day, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend whose daughter takes the same school bus as my 11-year-old girl. Her daughter had told her that Ah Girl was watching a clip from the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” – and was concerned.

“13 Reasons Why” is a television series based on a story written by Jay Asher, in which the teen protagonist who commits suicide leaves behind 13 tape recordings on why she ended her life. Each tape implicated a person whom she blamed for her choice to kill herself.

It seems an intriguing and well-constructed piece of fiction, except that when translated into a highly-publicised teen drama series, alarm bells begin ringing for parents and the international mental health community.  They understand how easily a Hollywood treatment of such a complex issue as suicide may glamorise suicide instead.

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A couple of days before receiving that WhatApp message about “13 Reasons Why”, a parent in my 9-year-old son’s class parents’ WhatsApp chat group shared a news article about the “Blue Whale Suicide Challenge”. The report, which was picked up by other major news media, linked the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia to playing the “Blue Whale Challenge”, in which youths followed the commands of a game-master in ever-escalating acts of danger, culminating in their own suicide. Although fact-checking site Snopes.com said that the claims are unconfirmed, it’s nonetheless of concern that our young people may be susceptible to such sinister suggestions which put so little value on life.

The concerns of parents here were enough for the Education ministry to post a comprehensive advisory on schoolbag.sg regarding suicide games in the online media and how parents should handle it.

Of course, our concerns and fears for our children’s mental health is not new. No one doubts that our high-stress and exam-oriented school culture can easily create a tragic situation where failing to meet parents’ and the school’s expectations may cause yet another student to contemplate suicide. It only remains for parents and school counsellors to be vigilant when dealing with our children, to take note of their behaviour and well-being, and to create an environment where our children can feel safe enough to share their feelings of insecurity with us.

I read the news about the Blue Whale Challenge, I immediately shared the story with the kids and we had a chat about the implications of this challenge. I asked them what they thought of the challenge and how similar or different this challenge was to other internet viral challenges like the ALS ‘Ice Bucket’ Challenge and the more dangerous ‘Cinnamon’ Challenge. We talked about our responses to such challenges and dares, and what separates cowardice and bravery.

For my 18-year-old son, however, I had to be a little more subtle and a whole lot more ‘clueless’. “What’s this Blue Whale Challenge hah?” I asked him – and had him explain it to me. My “Why are they like that?” question encouraged him to give his views on the people who participated in the challenge and the game convener. It’s really good to know that he’s up-to-date with current affairs and, more importantly, to be assured that he places a high value on life.

I had to be a bit careful about talking about “13 Reasons Why” with Ah Girl though, because I didn’t want it to affect her relationship which her friend who had told her mother about her viewing the clip.

It turned out Ah Girl was watching a YouTube video on a friend’s smartphone (because her mobile doesn’t have data roaming), and the Netflix video ad for the series had to play in full before she could watch her TED-Ed video.

I asked her what she knew about “13 Reasons Why” and she shared that she knew it was an M18 show about a girl’s suicide, but she wasn’t interested to watch a show like that. Her younger Di-di, aged 9, chimed in to say that he also saw the ad for the series when he surfed YouTube, but won’t watch it “because it doesn’t have a funny part!”.

“Is there a difference between watching ’13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Star Wars’?” I asked.

“One is real, but the other is not,” the boy replied.

“Actually, both are not real,” I corrected, even though I knew what he meant. “They are both stories written by people and made into movies.”

I felt that it was important for my kids to see the difference between fact and fiction. If they mistook a fantasy for reality, it would create the basis for their behaviours and actions. This is why it is highly unlikely that playing ‘Counterstrike’ would turn Kor Kor into a terrorist, or watching ‘Star Wars’ would turn Di-di into a Sith Lord, even if we did encounter quite a number of these cosplay characters over the Star Wars Weekend at Gardens by the Bay.

However, if my kids believed that Hannah Baker’s suicide story is real, they may just simplify suicide as an option for revenge and justice from beyond the grave, and an action worth carrying out when they encounter difficult times.

Therein lies the true danger of headline news like the unverified ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ and the concerns about ’13 Reasons Why’. Both suicide-focussed stories cut too close to the divide between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. For vulnerable youths seeking attention or help, these stories may provide an unanticipated call to action that we are not prepared for.

We can’t stop them from watching such videos and clips all the time, but we can start talking to them about the value of life and steer them into healthy pursuits. This is in the hope that the suicide option will never cross their minds as a way to overcome what problems they face. They must know that life is very much worth living whatever the fantasy or fiction might portray.

 

 

Featured image by Google user Pixabay. CCO.

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