When 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s adaptation of a young-adult novel about a teen who kills herself because of how viciously she is bullied, was released in March, some critics accused Netflix of wading irresponsibly into treacherous waters. “For some viewers,” writes a team led by the behavioral scientist John Ayers in a new research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine, “the series glamorizes the victim and the suicide act in a way that promotes suicide, while other viewers hope the series raises suicide awareness.”
These are tricky claims to evaluate in a careful way, as are just about all arguments positing links between media consumption and behavior given how complicated the psychological processes by which people process media messages are. Ayers’s team, though, which has done a lot of interesting work gauging the impact of high-visibility media events (like Charlie Sheen’s HIV announcement, to take one previous example that Science of Us covered), decided to make the debate a bit more concrete by looking at Google search-term data, and they found some fairly solid evidence about the show’s effects on vulnerable young people: It appears to have caused spikes in searches for suicide-prevention resources, but also for information about how to go through with the act.
In their research letter, Ayers and his co-authors show what that uptick looked like, breaking it down by various suicide-related search terms.
As you can see, these findings could be fairly interpreted as a mix of good, bad, and ambiguous news about the effects of that show. The bad news is fairly alarming, though — Ayers and his colleagues write that in light of prior evidence on the link between suicide-related searches and actual suicide attempts, there is at least a circumstantial case that 13 Reasons Why did cause some real-world instances of increased suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, even as it led other people to potentially lifesaving resources.
In the future, they write, “The deleterious effects of shows such as 13 Reasons Why could possibly be curtailed by following the World Health Organization’s media guidelines for preventing suicide, such as removing scenes showing suicide, or addressed by including suicide hotline numbers in each episode.” Those seem like some fairly commonsense guidelines.