A recent study links the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why with a spike in teen suicide.
Researchers examined suicide rates in the United States before and after March 2017, which was when Netflix released the series 13 Reasons Why. The show, which is based on the YA novel of the same name by Jay Asher, tells the story of a teenage girl who dies by suicide, leaving behind a series of 13 audio messages that explain the reasons that she ended her life.
The researchers found a 28.9% increase in suicide rates in U.S. among adolescent males (10-17 years of age) in the month following the release of the series. That is a shocking number, undoubtedly higher than what educators and psychologists warned about when the program was first released two years ago.
The so-called Werther effect, coined by suicide researcher David Phillips, inspired by Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is when a publicized suicide serves as a trigger for others to follow suit. (Scientific American has an in-depth article on the phenomenon.)
The new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), seems to indicate that the Werther effect was fully in effect with 13 Reasons Why and its fictional depictions of teen suicide, at least for males. Suicide rates for females did increase, but it was not statistically significant. The researchers found that the number of suicides was greater than that seen in any single month over the five-year period researchers examined. Over the rest of the year, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected given historical trends.
Researchers warn that their study does not prove causation, and some unknown third factor might have been responsible for the increase, like other celebrity deaths that occurred around the same time, but there is a very strong correlation. The National Association of School Psychologists issued a warning statement cautioning against letting kids watch the series, although anyone with a teen may find it extremely difficult to prevent. In response to early criticism, Netflix already added a “viewer warning card” before the first episode of the series, and created the website 13reasonswhy.info, which offers resources for people contemplating suicide.
When reached for comment about the new research, a Netflix spokesperson sent over a statement:
“We’ve just seen this study and are looking into the research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania. This is a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”
The Penn study found that young adults who watch to the end of the series were less likely to purposely injure themselves or seriously consider suicide—even when compared with those who did not watch the show.
For now, though, Netflix plans to release season three of 13 Reasons Why later this year.