13 Problems with Thirteen Reasons Why

Jay Asher’s young adult novel was recently adapted to the screen for Netflix and I had some issues with how suicide is represented. Below are my 13 problems with Thirteen Reasons Why. It is also available as a pretty Buzzfeed post here.

  1. Thomas Joiner, an academic psychologist and expert on suicide notes that feeling like one is a burden to friends and family is one of the strongest predictors of death by suicide. Hannah Baker didn’t feel like a burden, she was angry, confident, and vindictive.
  2. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says in their guidelines that graphic representation of suicide increases suicide risk. The way the show portrayed exactly how Hannah took her life was irresponsible, and will probably inspire copycat, or contagion suicides.
  3. The show has romanticized suicide and normalized it as a response to bullying. Your experiences of bullying are valid even if you’ve never felt suicidal as a result.
  4. The audience is shown what NOT to do in a mental health emergency, but examples of what TO DO are not shown. HalfofUs.org is a good resource for TO DO’s if you’re experiencing a mental health emergency.
  5. 90% of those who die by suicide experience mental illness. Depression and other mental illness that may lead to suicide are never discussed in the show.
  6. The way Hannah is bullied into taking her own life dangerously oversimplifies perceptions of suicide, and furthers the idea that there is someone to blame for a suicide.
  7. While there are trigger warnings for graphic scenes, suicide prevention and other mental health resources are not made available to the audience directly after these jarring depictions. There is a Beyond the Series feature that plays after the show and interviews mental health professionals, but it is not searchable by itself.
  8. It shows teens world through adults eyes, and the teens are portrayed by adult actors. The adult perspective bloats the series with bad parenting like condoning family violence and encouraging underage partying (Jessica Summers,  Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community).
  9. Hannah is not a well defined character in her own right, instead she is characterized by her victimization and her death.
  10. Covering suicide in this manner can dangerously influence the way suicide is viewed. 13 Reasons Why may continue the stigma that suicide is a selfish act. Joiner said in an NPR interview, “Their idea is along the lines of, my death will be worth more than my life to others. Now, if you ponder that sentiment, that’s not selfish at all.”
  11. We never get to see a successful request for help. Hannah’s counselor was not receptive to her need and was totally unsupportive of her, most school counselors are not like that. They want to listen, and they want to help.
  12. The show normalizes use of alcohol and marijuana in informal setting as well as formal school settings (Jessica Summers,  Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community).
  13. The book is better. It is more empathetic, compassionate and more realistic. The TV series blows events up and aggrandizes them. I’m a librarian though, so I may be biased.

We need diverse publishing

Recently, one of my students asked me if we had any fantasy books with an “awesome rockin’ black girl” as the main character. I struggled to think of one, partly because of my own ignorance and partly because I just don’t think there are nearly enough awesome rockin’ black girl leads in books.

This got me thinking about the We Need Diverse Books campaign and just how right they are. I started wondering if perhaps the problem wasn’t that writers aren’t writing diverse books, but that publishers are not willing to take the risk of publishing them.

As I’m chewing on this I read the Seattle Times article about Amazon Crossing, the Amazon publishing imprint that has been translating books recently. While there are pros and cons about behemoth Amazon taking on this aspect of the literary world, I was thinking about the immense benefit we could reap from it in the form of diverse books.

Currently, most of the books they are translating and publishing are from very white populations in Europe and Scandinavia. A lot of what they choose to translate is based on data about what English speaking readers are enjoying. I think they could still harness the power of data to find what is popular to read, but expand their reach to less white countries and expose us to some of their greatest literature. Maybe my student could finally read a fantasy about an awesome rockin’ black girl straight from Africa.

The pros and cons of fitness data

This post is the essay from the final exam in my Information Landscape class at Kent State University. I really liked the concepts and problems introduced by the question, and was proud of my reflection on them.

Question: Many of us are using fitness trackers and smartphone apps to track our fitness or health. Discuss the pros and cons of such massive sets of data traces (discuss at least two positive and two negative consequences).

My response:

Millions of people are using wearables and smartphone apps to track their health and fitness. By doing so, they generate massive amounts of data. This can be a boon to health professionals all over the world, but it also can expose individuals to privacy risks. Data can be used for great things like disease tracking and personal health improvement, but with so much data out there, we run the risk of it being misused and misrepresented. Data itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how people use it (Boyd & Crawford, 2012).

Some of the best things that large health data sets give us include healthcare innovations like disease tracking, and personal health improvement and involvement. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control were able to figure out where outbreaks of ebola were, or might crop up by mining data from sites like Twitter, and mapping calls to helplines in West Africa. In addition to traditional reporting sources, large data sets allowed local governments to send medicine and medical personnel to the appropriate places at the appropriate times (Wall, 2014).

While health data can be used to benefit humanity on a continental, or even global scale, it can also be individually beneficial. Mapping the human genome is easier and more accessible than ever before, and it gives a person incredible insight into their own health (Forbes, 2017). It can answer questions like what kinds of things are they sensitive to, or do they have any predispositions for diseases or disorders?

Some healthcare companies are creating devices that help patients with a preexisting condition track their health and monitor their disease. Companies like Senseonics and Telcare have created devices to help diabetics track blood glucose levels. Other companies like iRhythm and AliveCor have created stick on chest monitors and phone cases respectively, that monitor heart rates (McCandless, 2017).

People with and without illness can benefit from wearable tech that tracks fitness. Insurance companies offer incentives to people who reach a set number of steps per day (Betzner, 2015). People trying to lose weight are able to track their diet and exercise with health apps and wearables like the FitBit. Athletes training for competitions can track performance and tailor workouts to the needs and abilities of their bodies. The personal and global gains from health data can truly be world changing.

Not everything about tracking health and fitness data is good though. Devices can be hacked, privacy can be compromised, and data can be misused. Recently, Netflix held a competition within the company, asking employees to innovate new features for the site. One group benevolently hacked their FitBits to pause video when they fell asleep. While this is a neat idea, it shows the vulnerability of our wearable devices to being hacked, whether benevolently or not. During exchanges of information with laptops and smartphones, a window is opened to hackers. Intimate health and location data can be altered or stolen. By knowing what places you frequent, hackers could phish you, pretending to be a trusted store offering coupons, but really embedding spyware and viruses in fake links (Betzner, 2015).

Data privacy isn’t just a personal matter, it’s also an ethical one. Just because the CDC can access mobile phone records doesn’t necessarily mean they should. Certainly, having that information in the case of the Ebola outbreak was for the greater good, but what precedent does it set years down the line? How does being marked as a location with a potential for an ebola outbreak affect the industry and locals there? The advance of technology and the creation of data is outpacing our ability to ethically and responsibly regulate how it is used and accessed (Boyd & Crawford, 2012).

Responsible use and access also includes how data sets are represented and who has access to them. For example, when the app Pokemon Go was released it was touted as increasing the amount of exercise people got by walking around playing the game. However, when researchers at Harvard really dug into the data generated by the health and fitness game they found something different in the data from what was being represented more widely. The game did increase physical activity, but only for a little while and only by a little bit. On average players added about 11 minutes more exercise to their days and after about a month of playing, that number started to drop off (Howe, Suharlim, Ueda, Howe, Kawachi, & Rimm, 2016). This goes to prove Boyd and Crawford’s assertion in their “Critical Questions for Big Data” that interpretation always has a subjective aspect to it (2012).

That subjective aspect is important when considering who has access to all this health and fitness data. Certainly users have access to their own data, but data is a commodity and is frequently bought, sold, and shared. Who are the researchers that get special access to the data created, what are their biases, and what are the questions they are asking? In the previous example, Harvard researchers were the ones with the access and they were asking whether or not this fitness game really increased physical activity. Harvard is a rich institution with the ability to pay for access to large data sets. But what about a smaller company with different questions to ask? Without equitable access to data it’s hard to say if we’re truly seeing the data set in context, or if we’re just seeing data sets that reflect well on whoever is creating them (Boyd & Crawford, 2012).

While there are great benefits from digital traces of health data, we must also be careful and responsible while using it. Just as much as we can benefit from this data, we could be mislead by misrepresentation, or bias in the data sets. If used well, health data can help improve health, and control disease around the world and individually. In the end the data we generate is neutral; it is what we do with it that really matters.

References

Betzner, J. (2015, August 2). Wearable fitness devices carry security risks. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA). Retrieved from https://proxy.library.kent.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=pwh&AN=2W63193875281&site=eds-live&scope=site

Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662-679. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Forbes, J. (2017, February 1). The Human Face of Big Data [Video file]. Retrieved from http://ksutube.kent.edu/secureplayback.php?playthis=b2h5a498z

Howe, K. B., Suharlim, C., Ueda, P., Howe, D., Kawachi, I., & Rimm, E. B. (2016, December 13). Gotta catch’em all! Pokémon GO and physical activity among young adults: difference in differences study. British Medical Journal 355 :i6270

McCandless, D. (2017). The Internet of Things – An Interactive Primer — Information is Beautiful. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/the-internet-of-things-a-primer/

Wall, M. (2014, October 15). Ebola: Can big data analytics help contain its spread? Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29617831