The Netflix teen drama, “13 Reasons Why,” which deals with a young woman’s suicide after being bullied, attacked, and sexually assaulted by fellow classmates, may have led to a rise in teen suicides, according to a new study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the National Institutes of Health.
When the series debuted on Netflix in March of 2017, many parents complained that the story glorified the main character, Hannah Baker’s, decision to commit suicide. The show, based on a novel of the same name, demonstrated that Baker, who recorded her “thirteen reasons why” on a series of casette tapes left on the doorstep of a friend, got both revenge and justice on those who wronged her by ending her life.
The message resonated, it seems. CNN reports that, in the nine months following the debut of “13 Reasons Why,” teen suicide rates ticked up by the double digits. In the month immediately following the series premiere, teen suicide rates increased an astounding 28.9%.
“The number of suicides was greater than that seen in any single month over the five-year period researchers examined. Over the rest of the year, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected given historical trends,” NPR adds.
The author of the study explained to CNN that “[y]outh may be particularly susceptible to suicide contagion,” and that stories that “sensationalize or promote simplistic explanations of suicidal behavior, glorify or romanticize the decedent, present suicide as a means of accomplishing a goal, or offer potential prescriptions of how-to die by suicide,” may have an amplified effect on suicide-prone young adults.
“The creators of the series intentionally portrayed the suicide of the main character. It was a very graphic depiction of the suicide death,” he added.
The second season of the show did not have the same impact, the study says, because the characters who were identified as responsible for Hannah’s first-season suicide “came together” to discuss the impact of self-harm. Oddly enough, researchers found that viewers who self-reported feeling suicidal stopped watching the show in the second season, likely because the glamor of Hannah’s end had worn off.
Researchers for Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the NIH cautioned that the study could demonstrate correlation rather than causation, but some connection between teen suicide rates and “13 Reasons Why” is evident, and that content creators should consider controversial topics carefully before making them the centerpoint of a series (and that parents should be conscientious of potential harm).
“The results of this study should raise awareness that young people are particularly vulnerable to the media,” the study’s co-author told NPR. “All disciplines, including the media, need to take good care to be constructive and thoughtful about topics that intersect with public health crises.”
Netflix took measures when the series first debuted on its network to caution against repeating the actions portrayed on the show. Each episode features a message placard from the network that lists “crisis resources.” In a statement released to the Associated Press, Netflix says that they have “just seen this study and are looking into the research. “This is a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”