Could a book lead to an increase in the number of teen suicides? How about an incredibly popular online series? These are some of the controversies that have arisen after the release of 13 Reasons Why in March of this year. The cult Netflix series is based on the 2007 work by Jay Asher of the same name. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Hannah Baker, a protagonist who narrates posthumously, having committed suicide before the start of the book. Baker’s legacy is a somewhat sinister shoebox filled with cassette tapes, each with a side addressing one of thirteen individuals she feels is in part responsible for her suicide. Each of those addressed by the deceased is required to pass the box of tapes on to the next person on Baker’s list, for fear of having their part in her suicide exposed. The book has won numerous awards and reached the top of the New York Times Bestseller List in July 2011. A second series of the drama is schedule to start next year.
But is this merely compelling but essentially harmless entertainment? In May 2017, the curriculum director of Mesa County School District in Colorado ordered librarians to stop circulating the book, citing a rash of student suicides as justification. After three hours of deliberation between librarians and councillors, the book was returned to circulation on the grounds that it was not as graphic as the Netflix series. However, notices were sent to parents in the school district warning them of the series’ influence. In the UK, the mental health charity the Samaritans has labelled the work “misleading” and authorities in New Zealand are so concerned that they have banned teenagers from watching the series alone. Two teenagers in Austria are believed to have attempted to kill themselves after viewing the show. In the US, one study by San Diego State University found the release of the Netflix series corresponded with between 900,000 and 1,500,000 more suicide related searches, including a 26% increase in searches for "how to commit suicide", an 18% increase for "commit suicide" and a 9% increase for "how to kill yourself". However, a review of the study found that it is unclear if searching for information about suicide on the Internet is in any way related to the risk of suicide. In a separate editorial, public health officials at Harvard University said the programme should have provided information for suicide helplines before each episode. It also criticised the graphic portrayal of the central character’s death.
Are teen audiences really so easily led? Is it not patronising to suggest that otherwise happy teens would be given a final push but a popular show? This is unlikely. What the show has done it to create much needed dialogue between parents, educators and clinicians about an undoubtedly critical subject.
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