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Online Searches About Suicide Climbed After ’13 Reasons Why’ Premiere

smartphone search by young person

The popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why addresses a number of tough issues: sexual assault, cyberbullying, depression, and suicide. These are important topics to discuss, and it’s critical to do so in a way that helps, rather than harms, the intended audience.

Three weeks after the show’s premiere, internet searches about suicide increased by 19%, which is approximately 900,000 to 1.5 million more searches than would be expected without the show.

While it’s unclear whether the internet searches preceded any actual suicide attempts, the spike in searches can indicate a worrisome domino effect.

“[…] 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,” wrote John W. Ayers, Ph.D., of San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, and his colleagues in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Since its premiere, 13 Reasons Why has received mixed reactions. A number of people acknowledged the importance of opening up critical, often neglected, conversations about teen mental health issues. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ even created a parent tip sheet on how to talk about the show with children.

However, many suicide prevention and mental health professionals have voiced how the show violates guidelines for suicide portrayal in the media. They argue that 13 Reasons Why glamorizes suicide, portrays suicide as a solution to problems, and graphically shows the suicide in the season finale.

Research shows that the way media portrays suicides can lead to a “contagion” effect, inspiring increased risk behaviors in youth struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

In a study conducted to determine whether or not there was an increase in internet searches about suicide after the show, researchers used Google Trends to compare searches for the word “suicide” in the 19 days following the show’s release.

The study found that suicide-related searches were 15% to 44% higher than expected on 12 of the 19 days after the show’s premiere. Searches were 26% higher for “how to commit suicide,” 18% higher for “commit suicide,” and 9% higher for “how to kill yourself.”

Research also showed that searches for seeking help and awareness rose. “Suicide hotline number” searches increased by 21%, “suicide hotline” increased by 12%, “suicide prevention” increased by 23%, and “teen suicide” increased by 34%.

These findings show there’s no easy way to address suicide, depression, cyberbullying, and sexual assault. However, providing resources and discussing media portrayals of these topics with your children can help stop the “contagion” effect.

“If your kids have watched 13 Reasons Why or plan to watch it, it’s critical that you watch the program too so you are aware of the content,” said Dr. Anna Parnes and Jennifer Leydecker of the Children’s Health Council. “We strongly suggest parent caution, monitoring and dialogue about the program and its topics of suicide, survivor guilt, sexual assault and bullying and shaming.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Learn more about the online suicide research relating to 13 Reasons Why here.

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