Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why has attracted enormous attention due its controversial portrayal of a teenage suicide. It depicts an adolescent struggling with a maelstrom of stresses that include rape, drugs and cyberbullying, traveling a seemingly inevitable path to planning and executing her own death.
At its best the series gives adults a window into the reality of teen lives and provides a conversation opener to issues that can often feel off-limits. At its worst, there are three good reasons why Netflix should have screened this differently.
(1) Contagion. Research from epidemiologists shows that when teenagers view television programs depicting suicide, the result is a significant increase in suicide attempts and in suicide completion. To give some context, a national epidemiological survey of high school students in the United States found that 19% experienced suicidal ideation in the past year. According to new research that will be presented in San Francisco this Sunday at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting the percentage of younger children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions in the United States doubled over the last decade. Suicidal ideation lies on a continuum that can lead to suicide attempts and actual death. We have to interrupt that chain and stop copycat deaths.
(2) Suicide is not an inevitable consequence of bullying. The media has in recent years promoted the message that bullying causes suicide. The coverage has been so relentless that some students perceive suicide as normal response to bullying. Millions of students are the target of bullying every year, yet the number of deaths from suicide is a small fraction of these. Clearly even one death is a death too many. However the counter message, which gets lost in shows such as this, is that it is possible to reclaim your power and dignity, even in the face of bullying and abuse. It’s the message that so many of us work so hard to weave into teenage consciousness.
(3) This series needs a serious health warning. 13 Reasons Why is extremely dangerous to teens who are suicidal. These students are often overwhelmed by their own thoughts even before watching the series. If Netflix is really intent on exposing teens to this material, there needs to be warning that suicide is never a good solution, with clear instructions on the help lines to call or text if you are thinking that way.