Internet searches about suicide — including phrases such as "how to kill yourself" — increased in the weeks following the release of the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why," a new study finds.
The series, which premiered March 31, centers on a fictional high-school teen who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tapes she recorded for those she says were responsible for her death. The show is controversial — some mental health experts have expressed concern that it glorifies suicide and could discourage troubled teens from seeking help. But other viewers say they hope the show raises awareness about suicide.
To investigate the possible effects of "13 Reasons Why," researchers at San Diego State University analyzed U.S. internet searches that included the word "suicide" in the 19 days after the show's premiere. For comparison, the researchers also estimated the search volumes that would have been expected if the show was never released. [8 Tips for Parents of Teens with Depression]
Overall, searches about suicide were 19 percent higher than expected in the weeks following the show's premiere. This translates to about 900,000 to 1.5 million more "suicide" searches than expected, the researchers said.
The study also found an increase in searches related specifically to thoughts about committing suicide, including "how to commit suicide," "commit suicide" and "how to kill yourself." But the researchers also saw an increase in searches related to suicide awareness, including "suicide hotline number" and "suicide prevention."
"Our analyses suggest '13 Reasons Why,' in its present form, has both increased suicide awareness while unintentionally increasing suicidal ideation," the researchers wrote in the July 31 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
It's important to note the study found only an association between the show's premiere and an increase in searches about suicide, and cannot prove that the show is directly responsible for the increase. However, the researchers were able to account for several factors that could have influenced the results. For example, they excluded search terms that referenced the movie "Suicide Squad." And they included only searches from March 31 to April 18, so that they did not pick up searches related to the suicide of former NFL player Aaron Hernandez, which occurred April 19.
The study also cannot prove that any search about suicide actually led to a suicide attempt, but previous studies have found a link between suicide-related searches and actual suicide attempts. Additional research is needed to examine whether the show's premiere was linked to changes in suicide attempts or calls to suicide hotlines, the researcher said.
Still, to reduce possible harmful effects from the show, the researchers say the show should follow media guidelines for preventing suicide. For example, the show could remove scenes depicting suicide and include suicide hotline numbers in each episode.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
Original article on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.