Since its debut at the end of March, Netflix’s teen suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why, has been criticized by suicide prevention experts and counselors concerned that it could inspire copycat behavior. Now, a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine has discovered some disturbing, if unsurprising, trends in internet searches in the immediate weeks following the show’s release, trends that seem to justify those concerns. According to researchers, there were between 900,000 and 1.5 million more suicide-related searches overall in the 19 days after the show's release than would normally be expected during the same period—many of them searching for information about suicide methods.
The study examined queries between March 31, when 13 Reasons Why debuted, and April 18, an end date specifically chosen to avoid any possible influence on the data from the April 19 suicide of NFL player Aaron Hernandez. Using data from Google Trends, researchers found significant increases in searches for suicide hotlines and those related to suicide awareness in the period after 13 Reasons Why premiered, compared with historical trends. However, there was an even greater increase in the number of searches related to suicidal ideation: Queries for “how to commit suicide” were up by 26 percent; for “commit suicide,” by 18 percent; and for “how to kill yourself,” by 9 percent.
The study’s authors wrote that “it is unclear whether any query preceded an actual suicide attempt. 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.” They offered their own suggestions for how Netflix could reduce the contagion risks of 13 Reasons Why by retroactively editing the first season to follow WHO’s media guidelines for preventing suicide by “removing scenes showing suicide” or “including suicide hotline numbers in each episode.”
Netflix’s go-to defense for 13 Reasons Why has largely been to promote it as a positive force in raising suicide awareness. In a statement responding to the study, Netflix wrote, “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.”
It would have been nice if Netflix had taken more of an interest in the research that already existed and the advice of experts before releasing 13 Reasons Why's first season, since this study suggests that while the show did raise awareness, it also put vulnerable people at risk. Hopefully, if the studio takes any lessons away from this new data, it will be that how we talk about suicide is as important as whether we talk about it in the first place, and that there are real-world consequences to doing so carelessly.