‘13 Reasons Why’ and Media Effects on Suicide

In a recent study, researchers estimated that an additional 195 suicide deaths among 10- to 17-year-olds occurred in the nine months after the 2017 release of the first season of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why.” The study by Bridge et al. was seen as confirming fears that the series’ explicit and graphic portrayal of suicide might lead to increases in suicide.

But how should we interpret those deaths? ‘The’ research used to estimate those deaths may only represent the net effects of exposure to the show. It is possible that the show also prevented some deaths, and that what was observed was a net loss of life.

In a commentary in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers Florian Arendt and Daniel Romer wrestle with the meaning of those 195 additional suicides and ask whether that calculation obscures “a more complex social phenomenon.”

Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Arendt, a professor in health communication at the University of Vienna, Austria, say that an increase in suicide rates following highly visible media stories about people dying by suicide, known as the Werther effect, may obscure more complex effects of the story.

Among the countering factors are the Papageno effect. Named for the character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” the Papageno effect results in a decrease in suicide rates following a media portrayal of a character coping with and overcoming a suicidal crisis.

Evidence for the Papageno effect was observed in an Austrian study that looked at news reports that followed media guidelines on the responsible reporting of suicide. That study found an annual reduction of 81 suicides for those types of stories. But, Arendt and Romer suggest, the media content studied there could also have had an effect on 119 vulnerable people – with, for example, a detrimental effect on 19, and a beneficial effect on 100, still resulting in the net effect of 81 saved lives.

Consistent with that interpretation, in a study released earlier this year, Arendt, Romer and colleagues examined the effects of watching the second season of “13 Reasons Why” that provided evidence for both harmful and helpful effects on young adults. Their study found that viewers who stopped watching the second season partway through reported greater risk for future suicide than viewers who watched the entire season or didn’t watch at all. But some who saw the entire second season were less likely to report recent self-harm and thoughts of ending their lives than others who didn’t watch the series at all, suggesting that the show may have prevented some suicides in vulnerable viewers.

Arendt and Romer note that the potential for both harmful and beneficial effects of media stories creates problems of interpretation for researchers studying those stories. In their new commentary,  Arendt and Romer called for more individual-level studies of suicide attempters and loss survivors focusing on the potential for both harmful and helpful media content related to suicide, and when possible, individual-level studies with large general population samples both before and after the release of sensitive media content.

The commentary “Problems posed by the Werther effect as a ‘net effect’: a comment on recently scholarly work on the effects of 13 Reasons Why is in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Investigating harmful and helpful effects of watching season 2 of 13 Reasons Why: Results of a two-wave U.S. panel survey” is in Social Science & Medicine.

A hand reaching out. Credit: Akira Hojo/Unsplash. Image used for a commentary by Dan Romer and Florian Arendt on "13 Reasons Why" and media effects on suicide.
A hand reaching out. Credit: Akira Hojo/Unsplash.