For a week last spring, my life was overtaken by the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. My 14-year-old daughter and I were glued to the laptop screen with tears rolling freely down our faces, as we binge-watched the fictional story of a teenage girl who eventually kills herself in a graphic three-minute scene.
The controversial series scored tons of attention in the media for its depiction of suicide and the issues surrounding it, with some praising it for spreading awareness, and others blasting it for glamorizing self-harm. Now comes the news that suicide-related searches on Google jumped significantly after the release of the show.
Did I do a search for something related to the topic after watching 13 Reasons? I can't say for sure. But if I had to guess... I'd say I probably did. I have a teenage daughter, and the show haunted us both for a long time after watching, so there's a pretty good chance I went looking for more information online.
Now I'm wondering if she did, too. Because when researcher John W. Ayers, PhD set out to determine whether Google searches related to suicide increased after the show's Netflix release, he found that during the weeks after the initial debut, suicide-related queries jumped by 19 percent. Or to put it another way, there were 900,000 more searches for scary phrases like "how to commit suicide," "commit suicide," and "how to kill yourself," and for preventative terms like "suicide hotline number," "suicide hotline," and "suicide prevention."
"13 Reasons Why elevated suicide awareness," explained Ayers. "But it is concerning that searches indicating suicidal ideation also rose."
Of course, the study—published in JAMA—doesn't prove a connection with any actual suicides or attempts, and Ayers admits that it's not clear if the searches "were made out of idle curiosity or by suicidal individuals contemplating an attempt." But nevertheless, the researchers argue that the producers could have done more to emphasize prevention.
"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," they wrote. "Such as removing scenes showing suicide, or by including hotline numbers in each episode."
In a statement provided to USA TODAY, Netflix responded to the JAMA study, saying: "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."
Want the latest parenting news? Sign up for our Parents Daily newsletter