Are teenagers who watch ’13 Reasons Why’ more likely to contemplate suicide?

April 30, 2019

During its first week of release in late March 2017, the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why,” racked up over 3.5 million tweets, according to the research firm Fizziology—most of them, from teenagers obsessed with the suicide-themed show. Now, as the show and its audience gird for a third season, educators, physicians, and parents are worried that it will spur dangerous copycat behavior among the all-too-impressionable members of its fanbase.

Indeed, the viewer reaction to the first season, alone, is enough to give professionals and families pause. Among the worrying trends: Google searches about suicide spiked after the release of Season 1, physicians said that several children created lists of “13 reasons why” they wanted to kill themselves, and one hospital saw an increase in admissions of children who exhibited suicidal behavior.

But the news is not all bad, based on findings of a survey conducted by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania and three other institutions.

The researchers polled 729 young adults nationwide, ages 18 to 29, before and after the May 2018 release of the show’s second season. Among their findings, published April 25 in the journal, Social Science & Medicine, are the following:

  • Viewers who stopped watching the second season partway through reported greater risk for future suicide and less optimism about the future than those who watched the entire season or didn’t watch it at all.
  • Students—who represented nearly 60% of the sample—were at an overall higher risk for suicide. Of the viewers who dropped out of watching the series midway, students were at a significantly higher suicide risk than non-students;
  • The show appeared to have a beneficial effect on students who saw the full second season. They were less likely to report recent self-harm and thoughts of ending their lives than comparable students who didn’t watch the series at all. And viewers, in general, were more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared with those who stopped watching;
  • Netflix’s warning about the show’s potentially disturbing content preceding Season 2 mainly appeared to increase viewing—but did not seem to prevent vulnerable viewers from watching the season.

“Although there’s some good news about the effects of “’13 Reasons Why,’ our findings confirm concerns about the show’s potential for adverse effects on vulnerable viewers,” said Dan Romer, APPC’s research director and the study’s senior author. “It would have been helpful had the producers done more to enable vulnerable viewers to watch the entire second season, which is when the show had its more beneficial effects.”

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Media portrayals of suicide have been shown to have helpful and harmful effects. Stories of suicide in news and fictional media can elicit suicide—especially when they explicitly show suicide methods— in a phenomenon called the Werther effect, after Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” By contrast, news stories about people who have overcome a suicidal crisis have had a positive impact, a more recently documented phenomenon that is known as the Papageno effect, after the character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.”

“13 Reasons Why” seemed to be particularly upsetting for young people who were already at a higher risk of suicide and who empathized with the main character, 17-year-old Hannah, who is bullied and sexually assaulted before deciding to end her life.

The researchers added: “One explanation for the beneficial finding is that those at higher risk who persisted to the end were able to empathize with the challenges faced by the main characters and to take away a life-affirming lesson applied to their own lives.” The second season may have conveyed this message with more effectiveness than the first season, which mainly focused on the harm that the suicide inflicted on the victim’s friends and family.

“Given that we know that the Werther effect is a real phenomenon with detrimental consequences, the public outcry about potential contagious effects as a response to the first season is justified,” said the study’s lead author, Florian Arendt of the University of Vienna, Austria. “However, the second season appeared to have more content that could engender a beneficial effect than the first season, and this may have helped those who watched it in its entirety to walk away with more beneficial outcomes.”

Research contact: @13ReasonsWhy

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