Should you let your teen watch “13 Reasons”?
When the show 13 Reasons Why debuted in late March, it created a storm of controversy. The Netflix original series is about a high school girl named Hannah Baker who takes her own life. Before she does so, in a graphic three-minute-long real-time segment in the last episode of the season, she mails a package of videos with the 13 reasons why she decided she no longer wanted to live. On each side of the seven videos she blames a different person for her death.
The people behind the series, including executive producer Selena Gomez, believed that they were helping troubled people by showing how harmful high school life can be. The overall message is that people should be nicer to each other and listen more closely to what each is saying.
“When it came out, it was quite controversial with families that I see and families that I know personally and I spoke out vehemently against it,” Dr. Main said. “The justification and then illustration of suicide are both really, really destructive.”
A group of concerned researchers decided to test the debate over whether the series was harmful by examining how internet searches changed, both in volume and content after it was released. Using Google Trends, they examined search engines from the date of the series debut, March 31, 2017 through April 18, 2017.
The end date was chosen so their estimates would not be affected by the suicide of former football player Aaron Hernandez on April 19. They then compared the results to Google searches from January 15 to March 30 of the same year.
The resulting study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine at the end of July, showed that all suicide queries were 19 percent higher during the 19 days following the series debut, with rates ranging from 15 percent higher to 44 percent higher depending on the day.
While the authors of the study note that searches relating to suicide hotline numbers (21 percent rise) and suicide prevention (23 percent rise) went up indicating the show elevated suicide awareness, they were concerned that the searches for the term “how to commit suicide” (26 percent higher) were all significantly higher in the days following the series release than they were in the months preceding it.
“If the effect of the series is that people who are really in distress would be more likely to reach out and get help, that would be terrific,” Dr. Main said. “On the other hand, if the effect is here’s an example of a person who tried to reach out and the people she reached out to were not responsive, and that discourages people from reaching out, that would be disastrous.”
Watch It With Your Child
In the last episode of the season, Hannah Baker does, in fact, reach out to her high school guidance counselor and he does not offer her the help she needs. That scene reflects the reality of many people in crisis, according to Dr. Main.
“About 80 percent of people who die by suicide have had contact with some sort of helping professional in the couple of months before they died,” he said. “It’s really scary and it is because we’re not listening well. I think it’s partly because we’re busy, but partly because we’re in denial.”