Suicides by young Americans rose by nearly a third in the month following the 2017 debut of popular Netflix television drama series 13 Reasons Why, in which a teenage girl kills herself, a US study showed on Monday.
The researchers said the study had limitations and they could not make a direct causal link between 13 Reasons Why and the increase in suicide rates or rule out other factors. Another previous study had found watching the program was associated with a reduced risk of self-harm for some young adults.
The rate of suicide in April 2017 was 28.9% higher among US youth ages 10 to 17 than would be expected based on suicide counts and trends observed in previous years, the National Institutes of Health-supported (NIH) study said.
It found rates of suicide for 10- to 17-year-olds were also higher in the rest of the year, resulting in an additional estimated 195 suicide deaths from April to December 2017 versus expectations based on past data. The increase was driven primarily by young boys, they said.
A Netflix spokesman said the company had just seen the study and was reviewing it. “It’s a critically important topic, and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly,” the Netflix spokesman said.
The spokesman also said the research conflicted with a recent finding by a team at the University of Pennsylvania. In a survey of 18- to 29-year-olds, the Pennsylvania researchers found students who watched all of season two of 13 Reasons Why were less likely to report self-harm and suicidal thoughts than others who did not watch the series at all.
The show tells the story of a teen who leaves behind a series of 13 tapes describing why she decided to take her own life. The first season’s final episode depicted her slitting her wrists in a bathtub. The graphics scene caused a backlash among parents and health professionals, prompting Netflix in 2017 to put up additional viewer warnings and direct viewers to support groups.
A second season was released in May 2018 and a third season has been ordered by Netflix. Chief Executive Reed Hastings defended the third season renewal at a shareholder meeting in June 2018. “13 Reasons Why has been enormously popular and successful. It’s engaging content. It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it,” Hastings said.
The NIH-backed researchers said their findings “should serve as a reminder to be mindful of the possible unintended impacts of the portrayal of suicide, and as a call to the entertainment industry and the media to use best practices when engaging with this topic.”
The study was conducted at several universities, hospitals, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the US government’s National Institutes of Health. NIMH also funded the study.