Can TV Shows Help Teens with Their Mental Health?

Can watching TV be a positive influence on teens’ mental health? A recent report by UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers (CSS) says, surprisingly, yes. These findings are especially timely given that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in mental health challenges among teens, including anxiety and depression.

The Center recently conducted several studies examining teens’ perceptions of mental health after watching Netflix’s controversial series “13 Reasons Why,” a well-known high school drama that drew both acclaim and criticism for its depictions of suicide, domestic violence, bullying, sexual assault, homelessness, and school shootings. Of the teens who had seen the third season of the show, almost all (92%) reported looking for information on mental health topics that were raised in the show, and 88% went on to discuss mental health topics with someone else.

“Our research found that when teens watch TV shows that portray mental health issues, they actually talk about it with their peers, parents and partners.” —Yalda Uhls, Director, Center for Scholars and Storytellers

“Our research found that when teens watch TV shows that portray mental health issues, they actually talk about it with their peers, parents and partners,” says Center for Scholars and Storytellers Founding Director Dr. Yalda Uhls. “Our results demonstrate that these kinds of challenging and realistic stories inspire youth to talk about and learn more about mental health.” This storytelling can indirectly impact a teen’s mental health, by destigmatizing mental health issues, modeling help-seeking behavior, and supporting vulnerable youth so they feel less alone. But shows and media can also play a direct role, by providing resources and linking teens to sources of knowledge.

CSS also commissioned a report that analyzed over 1.29 million Twitter mentions of “13 Reasons Why” to gauge how teens were talking about the show on social media. Analysis found that social engagement was highest when the show’s actors provided mental health resources, like when Devin Druid, who plays one of the main characters, shared resources and posted an article about sexual assault. Clips of the show’s emotionally charged scenes also sparked social media conversations about difficult subjects.

When Buzzfeed asked their Twitter audience what shows handle mental health storylines well, responses flooded in from people who’ve felt validated by their favorite shows. One commenter wrote about the show “Big Mouth,” which depicts depression as an oversize cat who sits on a character so she can’t move: “The way they portrayed it as anger and numbness as well as a large weight was so relatable. I wish I had seen it when I was 13, so I would have known it wasn’t just me.”

REACT, a popular YouTube channel, also made a video of teens reacting to clips of mental health depictions from TV and movies. Participants had the following to say:

About the depiction of depression on the show Euphoria:

  • Nia, 19: “That’s how depression is. You don’t remember the last time it was that you were happy.”
  • Marlhy, 17: “I’m glad that teenagers are being represented. Kids grow up seeing these movies and TV shows about how perfect high school is, and then they go in and it’s so much more than that.”

About the depiction of academic anxiety in The Breakfast Club:

  • Anthony, 15: “We’re not given time to breathe. I’ve had friends who left school because they find it really stressful, and I’ve just never seen them again. I feel like I have to constantly impress my parents with my grades because that’s the only thing I have going for me, but it’s really hard.”
  • Kenneth, 19: “This specific thing [anxiety about grades] can apply to so many people. There’s so much pressure to do good in high school, get into a good college, get a good job. That pressure can overwhelm people.”

About the depiction of substance dependency in Saved By the Bell:

  • Anna, 19: “It’s this hustle culture that you have to keep going, keep pushing, and that your mental wellbeing doesn’t matter. In that show she’s like, ‘I can push through it. I’ll just take a pill, and I’ll be fine.’”
  • Marlhy, 17: “That’s actually what’s going on in my life right now.” [Wiping away tears]. “I was not expecting that one… it’s really hard.”
  • Darius, 19: “I’ve had my fair share of doing drugs in dark times. I lost two, three jobs because of this. I lost respect from my parents. Which sucks because I could have just talked to them. If I’m going to have any message in this episode, it’s that drugs are never the option.”

While some shows and movies may provide mental health benefits for teens, exposure to onscreen substance should also be taken into consideration. Teens are still learning about the world around them, and it’s important that they can understand and discuss what they view — with a critical eye. Check out these tips to help your teen become a more active viewer. As always, it’s up to your discretion and your teen’s judgment as to what shows are appropriate, and how to set reasonable boundaries.

TV shows, however, aren’t the only way to have a productive conversation with your teen about mental health or substance use. In fact, there’s really no bad time to talk. Check out these 13 stress-free tips for starting a conversation with your teen.

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