It’s official now, though I already knew it. Television shows have the power to tip fragile young people into taking their own lives and as a society we’ve consistently underestimated the power of media to influence behavior.
Social contagion is real, and we have had data for years to prove it. Teenagers are particularly prone to it. Social contagion is why we see suicide clusters in communities after there is one suicide.
People often deny that media has any influence on their behavior, but behavioral scientists know this isn’t true. They don’t realize that the influence is beneath the level of conscious awareness. When one Super Bowl ad costs 5.3 million dollars, it’s simply naive to assume otherwise. Advertisers know the power they wield and they will a premium for it.
In a report by NPR on 4/30/19 it becomes clear:
“When Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why was released two years ago, depicting the life of a teenager who decided to take her own life, educators and psychologists warned the program could lead to copycat suicides. Now, a study funded by the National Institutes of Health shows that those concerns may have been warranted.
In the month following the show’s debut in March 2017, there was a 28.9% increase in suicide among Americans ages 10–17, said the study, published Monday in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The number of suicides was greater than that seen in any single month over the five-year period researchers examined. Over the rest of the year, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected given historical trends.”
When I watched 13 Reasons Why shortly after its release I was alarmed. I’ve been a therapist for three decades and worked with more depressed teenagers than I can count. I am very aware that the teen brain doesn’t function like an adult brain. Prefrontal cortex maturation doesn’t occur until the mid-twenties which means teens will have impaired decision-making skills.
In 13 Reasons Why the protagonist, Hannah, is a beautiful, kind, and overall delightful high school student with major struggles. Hannah’s character is written to be an extremely appealing girl that many teens would identify with as a role model. After she is sexually assaulted, bullied, and struggles with social isolation — and perhaps most importantly, a failed attempt to reach out to her school counselor — she slits her wrists and dies in the bathtub. The takeaway is “don’t bother trying to get help — no one will be there for you.”
Everyone let Hannah down.
But see Hannah isn’t really dead, because she still appears in nearly every scene as a sort of omnipresent ghost who gets to watch everyone grieve for her. She has prepared a series of 13 tapes to be delivered to those who harmed her or let her down.
This feeds a dangerous but common fantasy: I’ll still be watching after I die and can take pleasure seeing other people suffer for being mean to me.
The other dangerous message was clear: Don’t bother going to adults to get help — they don’t care and will let you down.
Many have argued that this show will serve a purpose by opening the opportunity for parents to discuss difficult topics like sexual assault, substance abuse, bullying, and suicide with their kids — all things that should be discussed. However the toxic twist with this show is that there is no positive resolution presented, and thus no hope. If Hannah had been bullied and assaulted and then received positive help from a counselor and gone on to have a good life wouldn’t it have been a very different show?
It would offer hope, and be closer to reality. Most of us survive adolescence intact if we receive the right kind of support and Hannah certainly would have too.
Weeks after I watched the series; my friend’s 14 year old daughter binge watched the series and copying the MO to the letter, killed herself with no warning. It was clear in the letters she left that she didn’t realize she would be gone for good. In a note to her mother she said “Mom, please don’t be mad at me or put me on restriction.”
She didn’t get that this was permanent. She was a teenager, with all the magical thinking and fantasies that go with being a teenager.
I was shocked that though I had already made public warnings, this hit so close to home.
Those who produce media targeting young people have an ethical obligation to present messages that are grounded in truth, that will have a positive impact. We can talk about difficult issues without exploiting the real problems teens face for financial profit.
Personally, I’d like to see them held accountable.