Being a teenager is tough, so airing a show that glorifies suicide — especially one aimed at teenagers — is not exactly a great idea.
Yet that’s just what Netflix did with 13 Reasons Why, a series about a girl who commits suicide. Now comes new research that the series “may lead to increased suicidal thoughts among young viewers,” says the website Fatherly, aimed at millennial dads.
The data indicates that Google searches for “how to commit suicide” increased 26 percent following the series release. That’s cause for concern, because there’s a well-established link between suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.
“Psychiatrists have expressed grave concerns, because the show ignores the World Health Organization’s validated media guidelines for preventing suicide,’ coauthor on the study John W. Ayers of San Diego State University told Fatherly. WHO’s guidelines aim to discourage content that centers around suicide.
Ayers and his team looked at aggregate internet search data in the U.S., obtained from Google Trends. They focused on 2017 searches that took place between March 31 (when 13 Reasons Why was released) and April 18, a cut-off date chosen to control for suicide-related searches about former NFL player Aaron Hernandez’s death on April 19. Researchers also excluded the term “squad” in them, to account for searches related to Suicide Squad.
The findings indicated that there were marked spikes in suicide-related searches in early April. Some of that spike came from people seeking help—searches for “suicide hotlines” and “suicide prevention” increased by 12 percent and 23 percent, respectively. But there was also a disturbing increase in searches for the phrases “how to kill yourself” (up 9 percent), “commit suicide” (18 percent), and “how to commit suicide” (26 percent).
“It’s unsurprising that we find the show has increased suicidal thoughts—thoughts that are known to be linked to suicide attempts,” Ayers says. “The time for more debate is over.”
Ayers and his colleagues are calling on Netflix to pull the show, which realistically depicts the events leading up to a teenage girl’s suicide. High school student Hannah Baker kills herself after recording 13 tapes detailing why she committed suicide, which is shown in graphic detail in the series finale.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds. One mother in Florida blames the show, executive produced by singer Selena Gomez. “After her son watched the series, he began to to self-harm and wrote down 13 reasons why he wanted to commit suicide,” the Daily Mail reported in May. Luckily, the mom found the boy’s list of 13 reasons why and got him help.
The series carries a TV-MA rating — which means it’s “unsuitable” for people under age 17. Netflix also added content warnings and concludes the show by offering information on suicide prevention resources, in addition to encouraging parents to watch the show with their teens.
But Kimberly McManama O’Brien, a psychiatry researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, told Reuters that “the choice to graphically depict the suicide death of the star of the series was a controversial decision.”
“Research has shown that pictures or detailed descriptions of how or where a person died by suicide can be a factor in vulnerable individuals,” She said.