Since the debut of Netflix’s drama 13 Reasons Why, there’s been an ongoing debate about the show, which revolves around the aftermath of a teen girl who commits suicide after being maliciously bullied. Some, including the shows creators, say the show deals with teen suicide in a responsible way that brings the subject out in the open. Others, including some mental health professionals, argue the show does to little to guard against glamorizing suicide. Now there’s some actual data on the subject, as new research finds that suicide-related Google searches were “19 percent higher for the 19 days following the series release,” according a press release on the findings.
Researcher John Ayers, PhD, an associate research professor at the San Diego University Graduate School of Public Health, used Google Trends (a public archive of searches) to see if suicide-related searches increased after the show’s release, and published the findings in a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine. While there was a spike in searches about suicide-prevention resources, there was also an increase in searches for how to go through with the act, Science of Us writer Jesse Singal explains in a piece about the research.
The true meaning of this increase in searches is far from definitive, and, as Singal notes, we should be skeptical about “arguments positing links between media consumption and behaviors given how complicated the psychological processes by which people process media messages are.”
But the new research is concerning nonetheless. To estimate what search patterns would have been like if the show never aired, Ayers and his co-authors compared actual Google searches with expected search volumes for suicide-related terms based on historical trends. They found that, on the one hand, there was an increase in searches for phrases like “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention” (up 12 percent and 23 percent over expected volume, respectively), but that happened at the same time as searches like “how to commit suicide” went up 26 percent, “commit suicide” went up 18 percent and “how to kill yourself” went up 9 percent. “While it’s heartening that the series’ concurred with increased awareness of suicide and suicide prevention,” Ayers said in the press release, “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.” Additionally, Ayers points to previous research that found internet searches for these terms are correlated to actual suicides.
Again, the new results don’t prove that the Google searches translated into action, but “there is at least a circumstantial case that 13 Reasons Why did cause some real-world instances of increased suicidal ideation and suicide attempts,” Singal writes, despite also boosting searches for helpful resources like suicide hotlines.
To mitigate potential harmful effects of the show, which was recently renewed for a second season, the researchers suggest the first and second seasons be edited to adhere to the World Health Organization’s media guidelines, which include “removing scenes showing suicide,” or “including hotline numbers in each episodes.”
Ultimately, it’s hard to say whether the show is blatantly good or bad for teens, something Thrive Global senior writer Drake Baer explored in a piece published after the show’s release. But this new research suggests we all need to be aware of how media can influence young minds.