Researchers say that Internet searches for information about suicide spiked 19 percent during the period immediately after the popular, but controversial, Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” debuted on March 31.
Queries such as “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself” were all significantly higher in the 19 days after the show debuted over a comparable period. (More on the methodology below.)
“Seventeen of the top 20 related queries were higher than expected, with most rising queries focused on suicidal ideation,” or suicidal thoughts, says the paper by John W. Ayers of the San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health and four other researchers that was posted online July 31 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, published by the American Medical Association.
The researchers say it was unclear whether the increase in searches related to suicidal thoughts led to an actual increase in suicide attempts.
“However, suicide search trends are correlated with actual suicides, media coverage of suicides concur with increased suicide attempts, and searches for precise suicide methods increased after the series’ release,” the report says.
“13 Reasons Why” is based on a book of the same name and is about a set of tapes left behind by 17-year-old student Hannah Baker detailing whom she believes wronged her and led her to commit suicide. The final episode includes a flashback depicting Baker’s suicide by razor in a bathtub, a scene that unfolds in graphic and grisly detail over three minutes.
The show has been widely viewed by teenagers, but came in for criticism on several fronts, including for the depiction of the act of suicide. The National Association of School Psychologists offered a public caution that vulnerable youths not view it.
The producers of the 13-part series have maintained that it was intended as an honest portrayal of the pain and finality of suicide, as well as such contributing factors as cyberbullying, stalking, “slut shaming,” and rape.
In a 30-minute after show that was released with the series, Bryan Yorkey, the executive producer of “13 Reasons Why,” addressed why the decision was made to depict Hannah’s suicide.
“We wanted it to be painful to watch,” he said in the show. “Because we wanted it to be very clear there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”
In a statement released this week in response to the JAMA Internal Medicine study, Netflix said: “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.”
(Netflix announced in May that it had renewed the series for a second season.) The company also some of the steps it took because of the sensitive subject matter, such as consulting with mental health professionals during production, releasing a companion website (13ReasonsWhy.info) directing viewers to regional mental health resources, and the after show.
The authors of the JAMA Internal Medicine study said they compared internet search volumes for the period from March 31 to April 18 with “expected search volumes,” based on an algorithm, as if the series had never been released.
“‘13 Reasons Why’ elevated suicide awareness, but it is concerning that searches indicating suicidal ideation also rose,” the report says.
The authors suggest in the relatively short report that “the deleterious effects of shows such as ’13 Reasons Why’ could possibly be curtailed by following the World Health Organization’s media guidelines for preventing suicide, such as removing scenes showing suicide, or addressed by including suicide hotline numbers in each episode.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.