The Netflix series 13 Reasons Why may lead to increased suicidal thoughts among young viewers, new research suggests. The study is the first to examine the impact of the controversial show, which has garnered much praise for its realistic depiction of the events leading up to (and including) the suicide of a teenage girl. 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 call on Netflix to immediately remove the show or edit it so that it conforms to WHO’s recommendations, before it causes needless deaths. Given that suicide is currently the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds, they may have a point. “I’d create a show that offers a message those contemplating suicide need to hear—a success story of how someone contemplating suicide sought and was given help, and persevered to have a full life,” Ayers suggests. “This is where 13 Reasons Why totally misses the mark.”