In March of 2017, Netflix released the series “Thirteen Reasons Why.” In graphic, gripping detail, it told the story of a girl who committed suicide after having left 13 tapes behind that described why she did. Although it gained acclaim from some, critics warned that it glorified suicide and inaccurately portrayed certain circumstances associated with this issue.
This past April, a study was released in a leading journal that examined whether or not suicide rates changed during and after the release. Findings indicated that in the month (April 2017) following the release, the suicide rate among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the U.S. was the highest it had been for a single month in the 5 years that were examined. Suicide rates among this age group increased by almost 30%, and increases were also noted during the month prior to its release (when it was being heavily promoted) and certain months following.
Although it is impossible to provide an absolute causal link between suicide trends and the series itself, researchers attempted to rule out a number of factors that may have accounted for these differences. No other explanations were found, and during the same time period, homicide trends, which are often connected to suicide deaths by various factors, did not show a similar increase.
In all, the study adds to a massive body of evidence indicating that media has substantial impact on many areas of functioning (especially among youth), even those that include taking the life of oneself. Assuming trends are as they appear to be, it is a tragic example of how media can influence a generation of kids to consider all sorts of sordid options. Proponents of the Netflix series argue that it provided an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about this important topic. But the reality appears to be that any such opportunity did not provide for a reduction of suicide rates during or after the show, but seemed to increasingly facilitate an “end of conversation” for those who may have needed a life-changing discussion the most. Furthermore, as a parent, I find it infuriating that 13 Reasons Why (which has now been renewed for a 3rd series) appears to be quite a financial windfall for the company while apparently providing a mechanism of influence for others to take their own lives. I would suggest that the company and producers should bear some responsibility in this matter as the connection between increased suicide rates and the Netflix series could have been easily predicted based on previous research.
Yet at the end of the day, we as parents and professionals are again asked to consider just how we might be sanctioning all of this. Netflix has the right to create whatever series they desire in this current autonomous landscape. We as a population have a right to make a decision about whether we not only want to support companies that use their rights in this particular way, and whether or not we sanction it (implicitly or explicitly) in our own homes. This isn’t about being naïve to think that our youth won’t see and hear things at times that aren’t necessarily good for them. They will. This just has to do with making intentional, conscious decisions about how much we want media and technology to influence our kids’ lives (and that of our own) each day. Because the more this occurs, the more we are ceding our true freedom to behaviors and habits that seem within our control on the surface, but are increasingly being influenced in unconscious ways by mechanisms that contradict basic human values. I for one already have enough drama in my family’s life without adding another sensational layer of tragic intrigue. If I need to talk to my kids about suicide (as we regularly do), I don’t need a media outlet setting the parameters for me. Frankly, I think we all might consider that a sensationalized series posing as a timely commentary is exactly the opposite of what our families need right now. What we actually might need is to cancel the Netflix subscription indefinitely and prove to ourselves and the parent company that we prefer more life-giving, healthier ways to spend our time than binge-watching unnecessary drama.
If you are detecting a little intensity to what I am saying, you are not mistaken. As a pediatric psychologist who is overwhelmed by the need for services, and a parent of seven young kids, my frustration is only increasing about all the ways that a misuse of media/technology is making our jobs more difficult. Parenting is already the most humbling profession alive. Given this, it sure would be nice if the media/technology industry considered there is something more important than a profit margin. I recognize that there are those in this industry who do exhibit a social conscientiousness, and work to develop good material for youth and families (and thank you for doing so). But the problem remains that this is often overshadowed by those who keep pushing the “sensational marker” as far as it can go in hopes it will create a financial windfall. And guess what? In doing so, they are preying on the most vulnerable of all―those whose brains have years and decades left to full develop skills of emotional regulation, impulse-control, higher-order decision making, and the like. I can’t imagine going to bed at night thinking I had just produced or broadcast something that might drive youth to make unhealthy, tragic decisions. But then again, we as parents and professionals might want to consider if we are unintentionally enabling this to occur.