Ever since the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why debuted two years ago, parent groups, psychologists, and social scientists have issued grave warnings about its glorification of a teen suicide and violence, particularly for vulnerable and at-risk youth.
Now, a new study offers perhaps the most concrete evidence to date associating the series with a spike in suicide among teens. The study, published Monday in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, shows that in the month following the show’s March 2017 debut, suicide rates jumped to a 19-year high for U.S. children ages 10-17.
During April 2017 alone, 190 tweens and teens took their lives, a 30 percent jump from the five preceding years. Teen boys accounted for nearly all of the increase that year, with girls and young adults older than 17 displaying no increase. Nine months after the premiere of 13 Reasons Why, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected, according to researchers from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“This is a very disturbing confirmation of our worst fears the past couple of years,” said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. “Netflix has the blood of children on their hands, and they are still trying to defend themselves.”
The show’s first season tells the story of a teenage girl’s suicide, including a graphic scene of her death, with a complex explanation of why she did it recorded on audio diaries. The show also depicts sexual assault and one character plotting a school shooting.
After the first season aired, Google searches for “How to kill myself” surged by 26 percent. At the time, Winter said there was debate over whether this would translate into more teen suicides: “Now we know that children did act on these attempts to hurt themselves.”
Teen suicide has been on the rise in recent years; it is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents. The study’s findings will likely invigorate the debate about the merit of 13 Reasons Why as its third season is expected to release later this year.
“We’ve just seen this study and are looking into research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania,” one that focused on young adults, not teens, an unidentified Netflix representative said. “This is a critically important topic, and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”
Up until now, Netflix has done little to address concerns. Some episodes include a warning message, and the streaming service created a website with crisis hotline numbers and other resources. In the show’s second season, actors offered advice to viewers on where to find help. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings defended 13 Reasons Why to shareholders last June, saying, “It’s engaging content. … It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it.”
The problem is that children are binge watching it, often unbeknownst to their parents. Fewer young people watch television in the family living room, while more consume it on mobile devices, often in intimate settings with the screen held closer to them. For these reasons, Winter told me content providers like Netflix must accept greater responsibility.
Meanwhile, decades of scientific research have shown that compelling media depictions of suicide negatively influence young people. Douglas Gentile, a child psychologist and psychology professor at Iowa State University, said he found the results of the Nationwide hospital study horrifying but unsurprising: “We’ve known about these negative effects for a long time, and yet there is this anti-science push for media violence in recent years.”
Some have cautiously praised the show for opening up conversations about teen suicide and its risk factors, including bullying, sexual assault, and social media pressure. But Gentile said, “We can’t presume the conversation is one-sided. For a young person already on the dark side and contemplating suicide, it doesn’t open the conversation in [the right] direction.”