Adults often get a little too freaked out about the TV shows kids watch. But the concerns raised over Netflix's teen drama 13 Reasons Why may have been warranted, according to a new research letter that found a measurable increase in suicide-related Google searches in the US following the show's debut in March.
13 Reasons Why takes a dramatic, graphic look at one teenager's suicide, including a lengthy scene depicting the main character Hannah Baker's death—a choice the World Health Organization specifically advises media against, stating "detailed descriptions of the method used and how the method was procured should be avoided." Many public health experts worried the show glamorized suicide, and could trigger kids at risk of self harm. To try to get a sense of the impact, a team of public health researchers from various institutions including Johns Hopkins turned to Google. The team investigated what people in the US were searching in the weeks following the show's premiere.
The researchers pulled US Google trends data from March 31 through April 18 (news of NFL player Aaron Hernandez's suicide broke on April 19, so the researchers decided to stop short of that date). They looked at any searches that included the term "suicide," eliminating ones that were clearly unrelated (such as searches for " Suicide Squad").
The researchers compared the volume of these searches to the number of searches predicted during that time period, based on an algorithm that looked at previous search history for the year. They found that suicide-related searches were 19 percent higher in the days following the release of 13 Reasons Why, with some dates as high as 44 percent higher than predicted. This equates to 900,000 to 1.5 million more searches than expected, according to the report, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
"Unfortunately, in this case, our worst fears were confirmed," John W. Ayers, a data epidemiologist at San Diego State University and lead author of the report, told me. "That increase is so large, you cannot explain it with any other phenomenon besides the release of 13 Reasons Why."
It's important to note that this study found an increase in suicide-related searches, but did not look at whether suicide rates had changes at all in the same period. Previous studies have found a correlation between Google searches for suicide topics and completed suicides in general.
Some young people have been aware of the show's impact. Siena Carnevale, a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey who lives with depression and has a history of self-harm, told me she specifically avoided watching the show.
"One of my good friends from high school watched it, and she suffers from depression as well," Carnevale told me. "She told me it was very triggering for her, especially the last episode with that very graphic scene."
Carnevale, who sees a therapist and uses medication to manage her depression, said the review's findings weren't surprising to her, and she worries about younger viewers who might not realize they're dealing with mental illness, and have no context for digesting this kind of subject matter.
The show's creators have defended it against this criticism, saying that it gives teens an opportunity to open up to parents about suicide and mental health, but Ayers said the data does not seem to reflect this effect. He said while there was an increase in searches related to suicide prevention, such as "suicide hotline," and "suicide prevention chat," these were not as frequent as the ideation searches, such as "how to kill yourself," and "painless suicide."
At least some parents, therapists, and kids have reported a link between the show and suicidal ideation or behavior; two families recently blamed the show specifically for two teen suicides. There's also good data that news coverage of suicides can trigger copycat deaths, but the research on whether fictional depictions can push someone over the edge is a little more conflicted.
In May, after public backlash, Netflix added additional disclaimers to some episodes of the show, and directed viewers to a website that provides suicide prevention resources. But Ayers told me he thinks the only responsible thing now would be to take the series off Netflix completely.
"We don't need to wait for more data, we don't need to contemplate it," Ayers said. "It's not worth the risk."