Studies Link Media Coverage to Increase in Teen-Age Suicide Rate

By Debra Viadero — September 24, 1986 4 min read

Television dramas and news reports about suicide appear to trigger an increase in the number of teen-agers who take their own lives, according to two major new studies.

The reports, published Sept. 11 in The New England Journal of Medicine, provide some of the strongest support to date for earlier findings that an “imitative effect” prompts many young people to kill themselves.

Suicide has become the secondl-eading cause of death among young people in the United States, with an estimated 1,700 15- to 19- year-olds killing themselves each year.

In an editorial accompanying the studies, Dr. Leon Eisenberg of the Harvard Medical School suggested that in light of the studies, “it is timely to ask whether there are measures that should be undertaken to limit media coverage of suicide.”

Spokesmen for the three major television networks disputed the findings last week and questioned the methodologies that were used to reach them.

‘Excess’ Suicides’

In the first study, two sociologists from the University of California at San Diego analyzed the number of suicides that occurred before and after 38 nationally televised news and feature stories about suicide broadcast between 1973 to 1979.

The researchers, David P. Phillips and Lundie L. Carstensen, found that on average, there were three more teen-age suicides in the week after a news story or feature on the topic than would be expected on the basis of statistics. During the course of the study, 110 unexpected, or “excess,” suicides occurred.

No comparable pattern was discerned among suicide victims age 20 and over, the researchers said.

“The more networks carried a story on suicide, the greater was the increase in [teen-age] suicides thereafter,” the researchers wrote. “In view of these findings, educators, policymakers, and journalists may wish to consider ways of reducing public exposure to stories, both general and specific, about suicide.”

New York Study

The second study, by Madelyn S. Gould and David Shaffer, professors in the Department of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, examined the relationship between television dramas and suicidal behavior among teenagers in the greater New York City area.

Their study found that the number of suicide attempts rose by more than 50 percent above average in the two-week periods that followed three of four television dramas about suicide broadcast in the fall and winter of 1984 and 1985. The number of attempts increased from an average of 14 in the two-week I periods before the broadcasts to an average of 22 in the two-week periods following the shows.

“IT the declared aim is to try and be educational, I think we have to be very cautious and say we just don’t know how to do it yet,” Mr. Schaffer said in an interview.

In discussing the “imitative effect” in his editorial, Dr. Eisenberg used the term “Werther effect,” coined from the title of Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s 18th-18th-century novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The romantic story of a young man who shoots himself was blamed for a rash of suicides among European youths.

Findings Disputed

Spokesmen for the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks disputed the studies’ findings.

“They do not measure and cannot measure the thousands of young people who are affected positively by the broadcasts,” said George Schweitzer, a spokesman for CBS Broadcast Group.

All three network spokesmen said they retained consultants, sociologists, or psychologists for advice when they produced the four television dramas studied by the Columbia University researchers.

Five days after the studies were published, ABC broadcast an “after-school special” about a boy who kills himself. “It doesn’t put him in the light of a hero,” said Jefferey Tolvin, a network spokesman.

The studies also drew criticism last week from the Youth Suicide National Center, a non-profit group formed last year to develop strategies and provide information on preventing suicide.

“The alarming rate of suicide cannot be addressed through silence,” Charlotte Ross, the center’s president, said in a prepared statement. “It would be irresponsible to allow two recently released studies, which imply some negative relationships between certain media coverage of the subject and increased suicide rates among teens, to slow the development of effective programs and open communication.”

Study on ‘High-Achievers’

In a related development, another survey released last week found that 31 percent of “high-achieving” high-school juniors and seniors said they had contemplated suicide at least once, and 4 percent had attempted it.

In their 17th annual survey of high-achievers, the publishers of Who’s Who Among American High School Students also found that 46 percent of the teen-agers surveyed knew a young person who had attempted or committed suicide.

Students said factors contributing most to suicide include feelings of personal worthlessness (86 percent); feelings of isolation and loneliness (81 percent); and pressure to achieve (72 percent).

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 1986 edition of Education Week as Studies Link Media Coverage to Increase in Teen-Age Suicide Rate