Under the Hood

‘13 Reasons Why’ Putting Young Adults At Risk Of Committing Suicide

Watching the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why" has been found to increase the risk of committing suicide in teens as well as young adults. A new study associated the increased number of people admitted to hospitals for suicidal behavior to watching the fictional portrayal of student suicide.  

The researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania and three other institutions conducted the study before and after the May 2018 release of the show’s second season. The study involved a survey of U.S. young adults, aged 18 to 29. 

Results show that the viewers who stopped watching the second season midway had higher risk of future suicide and less optimism compared to participants who watched the entire season or didn't watch it at all. Majority of the group who experienced suicidal thoughts were students. 

However, the study, published today in the journal Social Science & Medicine, noted the popularity of "13 Reasons Why" also has positive effects. 

The students who completed the show’s second season were encouraged to report self-harm and thoughts of ending their lives for immediate treatment. They also expressed greater interest in helping other suicidal persons. 

But for Dan Romer, APPC's research director and the study's senior author, it is important to put more focus on the negative effects of watching "13 Reasons Why."

"Although there's some good news about the effects of '13 Reasons Why,' our findings confirm concerns about the show's potential for adverse effects on vulnerable viewers," he said in a statement. "It would have been helpful had the producers done more to enable vulnerable viewers to watch the entire second season, which is when the show had its more beneficial effects."

“13 Reasons Why”: The Good & The Bad

Media portrayals of suicide have been known to have both positive and negative effects. Some reports showed that suicide-related news and fictional shows could trigger suicidal thoughts, while news stories about people who overcome suicidal crisis help viewers avoid the same issue. 

In the latest study, “13 Reasons” Why was initially found upsetting for young people. Viewers were significantly affected by the story of the main character, Hannah, who was bullied and sexually assaulted before deciding to end her life. 

"We hypothesized that watching only some of the series could be an indicator of distress that led those viewers to discontinue exposure to the upsetting content," the researchers said. 

But the show also helped improve how young viewers appreciate life lessons and empathize with the challenges faced by the main characters, which led to reduced suicide risk. 

“Producers of shows such as '13 Reasons Why' need to be aware of the potential effects of their shows, particularly on vulnerable audiences,” Romer said. “One way to do this would be to make the series less aversive to people who are sensitive to a story about suicide, because they may not get to the parts of the story that have more uplifting effects."