13 Reasons Why centers on the suicide of a high school girl who leaves behind cassettes for friends, enemies, and frenemies that outline her motivation for taking her life. 13 Reasons Why could also refer to the number of justifications there are for rejecting claims that the show has led to a nearly 30-percent increase in real-life suicides.
The program has been a flashpoint from its inception. When 13 Reasons Why debuted, the National Association of School Psychologists used the occasion to caution that being exposed to graphic accounts of death can be a factor in pushing a troubled youth to end it all.
Now, a research team has announced a study that purportedly found a connection between the Netflix offering and teen self-harm. It notes that suicides spiked in the months after 13 Reasons Why began airing. The Dallas Morning News declared this sufficient reason to drop the show. Meanwhile, The Daily Mirror blamed the program for a British pre-teen’s suicide, and other reputable publications have reached similar conclusions.
It’s true there was a rise in teen suicides in the month following the first airing. However, researchers offer no proof that the teenagers had watched it, knew about it, or offed themselves because of it. It was just textbook post hoc reasoning unbacked by supporting evidence. The same scenario unfolded in 1993 when detractors blamed Beavis & Butt-Head for a fatal fire started by a preschooler, only to learn later learned that the accidental arsonist lived in a home that had no cable or satellite television.
Moreover, while the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why experienced an uptick in teen suicide, the month before that did as well. To dance around this, one researcher offered an ad hoc hypothesis that this was due to the show’s trailer being released that month. This is another instance of the researchers committing a basic correlation/causation error that is unbecoming of someone doing what they do for a living.
Writing for Reason, Robby Soave raised the key point that the rise was only taking place among boys, whereas studies consistently indicate that suicide contagion primarily impacts those who feel empathy with and identify with a previous suicide victim. Since 13 Reasons Why focuses on a girl’s suicide, this makes the chance of a connection even more remote, as does the stagnation in suicide rates of teen girls during the show’s run.
Writer Daniel Bier chastises the researchers for merely counting “the months that suicides went up, even when there is half a year between them and no logical basis for attributing the increases in June and December to the TV show released in April.” He also noted that similar jumps occurred during various months in the years before 13 Reasons Why began airing. Failing to consider this and control for it shows either extreme laziness on the part of the researchers, or it reveals their predetermined agenda.
I suspect the latter, and the researchers likely betrayed this agenda when they wrote, “There is no discernible public health benefit associated with viewing the series.” This opinion, of course, has no bearing on whether Netflix can be fairly blamed for anyone ending it all. Besides, if the show had that the impact the researches claim, the suicide rate of viewers, especially females, would be much higher than it is. But they aren’t ending it all at an alarming rate for the same reason that Forensic Files doesn’t turn its fans into serial killers.