Parents and mental health experts alike have long feared that the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why glorifies suicide. And now, they have the research to back it up.
According to a new study, suicides in the U.S. among male adolescents (ages 10 to 17) soared just after the release of 13 Reasons Why season 1. In the month after the series premiered, suicide rates for males within this age group increased by a whopping 28.9%. (It’s worth noting that suicides among females also increased, though the results were not statistically significant.)
This study, published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found that a total of 195 more deaths by suicide than average occurred in a nine-month span following the series release, primarily affecting teenage boys. Researchers warn that their study does not explicitly determine causation – there could be an unknown third factor at play – but cite a strong correlation. They caution against exposing children and adolescents to the series.
Now that we have clear-cut data linking teen suicide with its portrayal on television, is it time to reconsider the media’s responsibility in the way it addresses suicide in entertainment?
Since 13 Reasons Why’s inception, concerns around its sensational depiction of suicide have been a recurring conversation. After all, the show’s premise is objectively troubling.
The series centers around seventeen-year-old Hannah Baker, who ends her life and leaves 13 cassette tapes behind that purportedly explain why she did it. Rather than focus on Hannah’s mental health struggles or use the tapes to explore the psychology behind suicide, the show turns Hannah’s story into a sort of suicide-as-revenge fantasy.
Hannah’s beyond-the-grave tapes are treated as the ultimate way to settle the score with anyone who ever wronged her – a bombshell last word to bullies, former friends, and exes. For impressionable adolescents grappling with experiences similar to Hannah’s, the show inadvertently presents suicide as a viable, almost romanticized, option.
After immediate backlash for its graphic first season, a message from the cast was added to the show saying that “if you are struggling with [mental health] issues yourself, this series may not be right for you or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult.” But given the results of this newly released study, that message no longer feels like enough.
I’m not suggesting we go so far as to ban shows like 13 Reasons Why altogether. Considering its rabid popularity and the fact that it’s about to spawn a wildly unnecessary third season, that argument is undeniably futile. That said, content providers like Netflix should be held accountable to do the internal due diligence required to put out more thoughtfully produced entertainment, especially when it is marketed toward vulnerable teens.
For their part, Netflix has committed to “looking into” the research. The company said in a statement,
“This is a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”
Whether it’s more important than their 13 Reasons season 3 ratings remains to be seen.