School shootings are on the verge of becoming a trope. Netflix now hosts no less than two series that deal with the specter of children mowing down their classmates — 13 Reasons Why and Degrassi: Next Class. This is troublesome. In the aftermath of mass murders in Parkland Sante Fe, Texas, the greatest crime that showrunners can commit is not glossing over tragedy, but propagating it. When we publicize school shootings, through media coverage or binge-worthy television, we normalize them and we talk about them.
And the more we talk about them, the more they happen. School shootings are contagious.
There is significant evidence that mass shootings are a social contagion in much the same way that self-harm is a contagion. Suicide rates spike after celebrity suicides and one 2015 study found that school shootings tend to occur within 13 of days of previous, high-profile shootings. Scientists suspect that social media chatter about school shootings tends to precede these tragedies, and experts have long noticed a connection between widespread media coverage of a mass shooting and subsequent school shootings. No study can prove that featuring school shootings in the media is killing kids, but there’s certainly a wealth of literature pointing in that direction.
It’s unclear why school shootings would be contagious. Perhaps coverage gives kids on the edge an idea of how to express their rage. Perhaps it makes horrific but abstract ideas seem plausible. Perhaps it provides a path toward instant infamy and away from anonymous suffering. Whatever the cause, it’s reasonable to suspect that television’s increasing tendency to use school shootings as dramatic material may be driving the school shooting epidemic.
It’s likely that school shootings are a more common TV event than you think and that it’s been that way for longer than you might guess.
School shooting episodes are all but a rite of passage for teen soaps. My So-Called Life, 7th Heaven, and Buffy all did it in the 90s. Critics hailed One Tree Hill’s “Columbine Episode” as a turning point for the series. Heck, Degrassi did it twice (once in 2004 and then again in 2016). Now 13 Reasons Why, fresh from a round of expert criticism for propagating suicide contagion in season one, has opted to depict the tortured life of a would-be school shooter.
One of the great ironies is how showrunners justify their lucrative yet irresponsible decision to keep telling the same Columbine story over and over again, contagion risk be damned by insinuating that it is reflective of their audience’s experience. It is not. Most kids are not affected by school shootings. They see them on television. Dramatization is merely redundant.
“Our attitude on the show has always been, whatever is out there affecting our young people, we should be talking about it on Degrassi,” the show’s co-creator Linda Schuyler told Buzzfeed last month, adding that Parkland will inspire another school shooting storyline next season. This sounds fairly reasonable on the surface, but is in fact deeply irresponsible.
Meanwhile, there is a special hypocrisy in the fact that it is the very creators of these school shooting episodes that cry loudest for gun control after massacres. And look, maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s the guns. But while we wait for gun control legislation that may never come, let’s start with something simpler. Studies suggest TV shows that normalize and glamorize school shootings may be part of the problem — so showrunners need to stop contributing to the contagion. Until then, as long as you’re OK with 13 Reasons and Degrassi recklessly using school shootings as cheap plot twists, don’t you dare talk to me about gun control.