Why social media is the biggest issue teen TV should tackle

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why. (Photo: Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Andi Mack creator Terri Minsky doesn’t feel it’s her place to tell any other showrunner what they should be doing on their series, but she does understand why Yahoo Entertainment reached out to television producers to ask which issue they’d like to see more shows address for teen and family audiences.

“TV shows are a message, a warning, from one generation to the next, about how not to do things,” Minsky says. “My generation thought high school was supposed to be the best four years of your life, so obviously there was something wrong with you if they turned out to be the most miserable. Kids who hated high school grew up to write Freaks and Geeks, and Daria, and Glee, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so the next generation came prepared, fully informed on what an emotional and psychological cesspool high school really was. Now, TV writers are trying to clear the forest of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, violence, rape, addictions. … There’s a lot to do, and unfortunately, right now, this list grows longer by the day, sometimes by the hour.”

In this age of Peak TV, many producers echo the words of The Fosters showrunner Peter Paige: “I think we have an incredible opportunity at this moment in time, with the breadth of programming going on, to explore all the issues that teenagers today wrestle with — sex, drugs, the internet, social media, guns — without talking down to them.” The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec lists a broad array: “Just like the rainbow coalition of normal human issues, whether it be depression and therapy, sexuality, gender dynamics, race dynamics.” 13 Reasons Why‘s Brian Yorkey gives more of a mission statement: “I would love to see more shows that speak honestly and personally and unflinchingly to some of the difficult things teens face on a daily basis, and not in a way necessarily that seeks to educate adults, but in a way that seeks to honor the experience of teenagers and to let them know that — as much as they may be feeling they’re the only kid going through it — they’re really not alone.”

But as we sorted the responses to our “Why Teen TV Matters” showrunner survey, we noticed one recurring theme:

Social Media

The Middle‘s Eileen Heisler cuts right to the chase: “I think the issue of social media is one that has impacted today’s teens in ways we don’t even fully understand yet. I think the effects of social media usage on teens is a current health crisis and something television should address.”

Heather Wordham, creator of Netflix’s Alexa & Katie, recalls something she heard recently explaining the pathology: “The point that was made that really stuck with me was that before social media, any teenager who felt bullied or like they weren’t enough at school always had a reprieve from that when they went home at the end of the day and could get away from some of those feelings of inadequacy. But with social media, that influence is now 24 hours a day. Anytime a kid checks out their social media, no matter what time it is or where they are, they risk facing those challenges and feelings.”

This is a particularly timely discussion for Pretty Little Liars creator, who, by the way, doesn’t limit the damage being done to just teenagers adding to the conversation: “Young people and adults have forgotten that words matter. They can inspire but they can also inflict deep and impactful wounds. When you hate anonymously on social media, your words still land hard and cause pain. Social media bullying is an epidemic in this country and we need to address it in our storylines. We need to show the bullies how it feels to be bullied. And we need to show kids who are being bullied solutions and ways to rise above the hate. I’d also like to see more storylines exploring the stress of needing to be popular on social media. It’s adding another layer to what success looks like to young people, and their need to be perfect at everything. We’re exploring these issues in our new show, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists.”

Awkward creator Lauren Iungerich (whose next series is Netflix’s On My Block) might have a suggestion: focusing on “self-compassion over self-esteem.”

“Self-esteem suggests that in order to win someone has to lose. And when you promote self-compassion, you are telling people to find a connection even in failure. That there are lessons to be learned when you don’t win. That when you don’t win, you actually connect with everyone else who is also not winning. And in that common connection, you find community,” she says. “I feel like our society is driven by so much self-importance that community has been lost. Being part of a fully-realized, supportive, and inclusive community is where we really flourish as a society. And I wish more shows would promote that idea.”

Buffy creator Joss Whedon would watch them: “The stories I’m looking for are about the kids who aren’t beautiful, sculpted, sexy leaders, and stars,” he says. “I’m always interested in the people who get ignored and get by anyway. (And look like they’re still in high school.)”

So, too, would Dan Perrault (Netflix’s American Vandal), who wants to see the labels that divide us disappear: “I think it’s getting a lot better, but in general I’d like to see less stereotyping and categorizing of teens. It seems like in real life we’re moving away from the idea of jocks, nerds, cool kids, and losers. We don’t all fit in a box, so I hope teen TV reflects that.”

Embracing our differences would help bring back what One Day at a Time co-showrunner Mike Royce believes is missing: “Portraying empathy is so important. For identity, representation, privilege … any storyline that can convey an understanding of people who are not necessarily exactly like you. Their problems, their struggles,” he says. “The kicker is, it’s all relatable no matter who you are. But empathy is becoming a lost feeling and we need to be finding it.”

There is hope

Funnily enough, the most optimistic outlook on the issues facing this generation may come from the co-creator of Netflix’s Everything Sucks! , Michael Mohan. “One of the most rewarding aspects of making this show was being able to hang out with these teenagers outside of filming. And it was so illuminating because I feel like so many articles about this current generation of teenagers take a pessimistic stance. You read about teenagers being addicted to technology — personally, I think teenagers today have a much healthier relationship with their phones than most of my adult friends have. Our cast wasn’t glued to their phones at all whatsoever,” he says. “You read about them being emotionally distant — but I actually think they’re more in touch with their own vulnerability than prior generations. And I think they feel far more empowered than anyone is giving them credit for. So while our show is set in the “olden days” of the 1990s (the same distance from when The Wonder Years took place and when it aired), I would love to see a straight-up honest, vampire-free story about what it’s like in high school right now, so that teenagers can see themselves represented onscreen accurately, and so that adults have a window into how amazing this generation actually is.”

Peyton Kennedy and Jahi Di’Allo Winston in Everything Sucks! (Photo: Scott Patrick Green/Netflix)

Katie Elmore Mota, executive producer of Hulu’s East Los High, has her own list of priorities — safety, equal access to education, issues involving sex and relationships — but she, too, thinks what is most important is listening to the teens you are writing about. “We need to ask them what matters most to them, and what stories or characters would they like to see on television that they maybe haven’t seen yet, what is on their minds. We did this with every season of East Los High, and we always learned so much. I think it really helped us ground the show and keep it relevant,” she says. “And overall, I think one of the most important things in life is to feel seen and heard. I hope that more and more teens feel that they are seeing themselves in mainstream media, that they see representations of themselves that they can relate to and that they feel that their stories matter. And to validate their feelings and challenges, and remind teens that every day is a new day, so never lose hope or give up. My mom always said, ‘This too shall pass,’ and that’s true for both the highs and the lows in life.”

That kind of communication is what One Day at Time co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett hopes to see more of: “I think parents start to get afraid of their kids and don’t know what to say to them. And on our show, we try to show that it’s hard and awkward and you don’t always say that perfect, elegant thing. But it’s the doing that is important,” she says. “Penelope always goes right in there and talks to her kids. I think it’s good for both parents and kids to see that.”

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