SAN DIEGO — The new Netflix hit series “13 Reasons Why” is linked to a surge in online searches for information on suicide, including how to do it, a new study finds.
The most tweeted show of 2017 tells the fictional story of Hannah Baker’s suicide through her cassette tapes left behind for her friends to listen to. The tapes detail graphic scenes of sexual violence, bullying and most prominently, the final moments of her life. The 13-episode series took on a candid approach that caused debate over whether it is spreading awareness about suicide or glamorizing it.
The research, led by John W. Ayers, an associate research professor in the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health, investigated the aggregated internet history of Americans from March 31, 2017, the series’ release date, and April 18. They found that there were between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches about suicide than expected during that time.
The team noted all searches containing the word “suicide,” except for the ones that contained the word “squad” — because they were likely for the movie “Suicide Squad” which was released around the same time.
The 19-percent increase of suicide searches included phrases both alarming as well as optimistic. The queries included: “suicide hotline” (up to 12 percent); “suicide prevention” (up 23 percent); “how to commit suicide” (up 26 percent); “commit suicide” (up 18 percent); and “how to kill yourself” (up 9 percent).
“While it’s heartening that the series’ release concurred with increased awareness of suicide and suicide prevention, like those searching for ‘suicide prevention,’ our results back up the worst fears of the show’s critics: The show may have inspired many to act on their suicidal thoughts by seeking out information on how to commit suicide,” Ayers says in a university press release.
The team compared the frequency of suicide searches before the show’s release by using data from Google Trends as well as historical search trends that were studied. By analyzing past trends on similar suicide searches, the team was able to see the frequency that suicide was on the public’s mind before the series existed.
“This strategy allows us to isolate any effect ’13 Reasons Why’ had on how the public engaged with and thought of suicide,” says Benjamin Althouse, a research scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling and study coauthor, in the release.
Researchers state that “13 Reasons Why” does not focus enough on suicide prevention and suggest that the producers follow the existing media standards developed by the World Health Organization to avoid triggering teenagers to follow the fictional character’s footsteps.
“It is critical that media makers follow these guidelines,” explains coauthor Jon-Patrick Allem, a research scientist at the University of Southern California. “For instance, these guidelines discourage content that dwells on the suicide or suicide act. ’13 Reasons Why’ dedicated 13 hours to a suicide victim, even showing the suicide in gruesome detail.”
Netflix did add trigger warnings to the show and has a TV-MA rating. They also responded to the outcry and said in a written statement: “We always believed this show would increase discussion around this tough subject matter. This is an interesting quasi experimental study that confirms this. We are looking forward to more research and taking everything we learn to heart as we prepare for season 2.”
Suicide prevention resources are always available to help and to spread awareness.
The full study was published July 31 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.