Thursday 17 October 2019

'13 Reasons Why' two years on - what has been the impact of controversial Netflix series?

Katherine Langford plays Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
Katherine Langford plays Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why (Beth Dubber/Netflix)
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

It has been two years since '13 Reasons Why' began streaming on Netflix, igniting a storm of controversy amid accusations of glamourizing suicide, and its aftermath, for a vulnerable teen and young adult audience.

An original production for the global streaming service, the series is based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel of the same name, and tells the story of a teenage girl who takes her own life, leaving behind a series of tape recordings detailing why.

Since May 2017, the series has been blamed, by several distraught family members, as a factor in the suicides, or attempted suicides, of their loved ones at locations across the world. The most recent claim came last month from the mother of a 12-year-old girl who had taken her own life in the UK.  According to her mother, the girl had been watching '13 Reasons Why' before her death, although the series was not referenced as a factor in the inquest.

Following this tragic death, a Netflix spokesperson said, “Our hearts go out to this family.  It’s a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handled this sensitive issue responsibly. The start of each series of the show carries a warning of ‘sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide and more’."

Katherine Langford as Hannah in ‘13 Reasons Why’
Katherine Langford as Hannah in ‘13 Reasons Why’

Netflix has indeed taken steps to reduce any negative impact on the young people watching.  These include giving certain episodes a rating of 18 in the UK and Ireland (parents can set parental controls on a Netflix account), including a cast message at the beginning, and content warning cards on individual episodes, as well as providing a resource website where viewers can get additional help and resources, including the helpline for Samaritans.  There is also a discussion guide for the show and individual topic videos.

These steps aimed at supporting viewers around sensitive content are extensive, and helpful.  When the topic of suicide is covered in a drama it is good to give trigger warnings so those affected by suicide can decide for themselves if they want to watch the show.  It is also helpful to signpost viewers to sources of support if they have been affected by content and wish to talk about it.

It is also helpful when production companies liaise with an organisation like Samaritans on sensitive content at the concept stage rather than post-production.  So says Lorna Fraser, Samaritans’ expert in media portrayals of suicide in the UK and Ireland.  She admits it is “frustrating” when production companies attempt to depict suicide and self harm without advice from experts in how to cover such sensitive topics responsibly.

“It is really important that producers get advice ahead of production, and this should be advice from people who are experts in the portrayal of suicide and self-harm, those who are in touch with the research evidence on how to cover this topic safely,” she says.

Research has shown that how suicide is referenced or depicted in the media and in drama can influence vulnerable people in a negative way and it is particularly important to tread carefully when content is aimed at a youth audience.  Lorna warns, “Young people are more vulnerable when it comes to the topic of suicide being covered in the media.  Actually extra care is required when targeting a younger audience.”

This is why Samaritans often works closely with the producers of films, TV dramas, soaps, and documentaries across the UK and Ireland in an effort to ensure they deal with these sensitive issues responsibly, taking due care of their audience.

Undated Netflix handout of 13 Reasons Why. (Netflix)
Undated Netflix handout of 13 Reasons Why. (Netflix)

Feeding into concerns about '13 Reasons Why' and its impact on young people is the publication of a recent study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry which found a 28.9 per cent increase in suicide rates among those aged 10 to 17 in the US in April 2017, one month after the series debuted on Netflix.

The number of suicides among that group in that month was greater than any other month over the five-year period examined. Looking at historical and season trends, there were 195 more suicides than expected in the nine months after the show made its debut.

While the study found a correlation it did not prove causation, however.  Among the issues hampering the study in finding causation is the fact that the researchers did not know whether or not these young people had watched the series.  Suicide and suicidal feelings are incredibly complex and seldom the result of a single factor - it is likely to have several interrelated causes.

However, Lorna shares the concern around the possible correlation between the arrival of 13 Reasons Why and an increase in suicides shown in this study.  There have been many, many studies in this area.

“There’s extensive research looking at the potential impact of media portrayals of suicide, research extending back over the last 60 years and covering the globe, so there is very compelling evidence that shows this potential link between certain types of content and an increase in suicide rates,” she says.

Speaking about this particular study, a Netflix spokesperson said, "We've seen this study and are looking into the research, which conflicts with last week’s study from the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a critically important topic and we have worked hard to ensure that we handle this sensitive issue responsibly.”

The Pennsylvania study referenced by Netflix deals with the second series of the show, which is different to the first in that it focuses on one character’s response to his classmate’s suicide.  The study surveyed 729 adults aged 18 to 29 before and after the second season, released in May 2018, and it found both harmful and helpful effects.

Those who watched the entire second season were less likely self harm or consider suicide, even when compared with those who did not watch the show.  However, these effects only existed for those who watched the entire second season.  Those who stopped watching before the season had ended were at greater risk for suicide.

When there are responsible representations of mental health issues, suicide and suicidal thoughts, and self-harm in film and TV, however, it can have a positive impact.

13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

“We’re not saying that you shouldn’t ever talk about this topic in the media because the risk there is that you could drive the discussion underground and potentially increase the stigma around suicidal feelings and behaviour,” explains Lorna.

“But it’s very much about how it’s covered and when you cover the topic of suicide different rules apply, because of the evidence.  It’s not just about raising the topic as a discussion point, it’s about doing that in a safe way, and doing that in a way that is likely to encourage people, for example, to reach out and seek help so that it’s not a risk to a viewer who may be vulnerable.”

Calls to Samaritans are confidential, but Lorna reveals that people do call when they have been touched or moved by content they have seen in films and TV programmes, and that can be a positive thing.

“It might be a really responsible documentary that has reached out to them,” says Lorna.  “At the moment the BBC is running a mental health season and last week they showed a really helpful documentary about anxiety.  Those kinds of programmes can be really helpful in raising awareness and encouraging people to talk and get help.”

Regulation can go some way to protecting vulnerable audiences from harmful content. In Ireland, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Code of Programme Standards for television and radio broadcasting includes responsibility for ‘Protection from Harm’ which requires broadcasters to take due care to ensure that audiences are not exposed to harmful content  However, the BAI’s Code of Programme Standards does not currently apply to content delivered by on demand editorial streaming services like Netflix.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment says Netflix is “regulated in its EU country of establishment, the Netherlands, for all EU Member States, including Ireland” but in Ireland the On-Demand Audiovisual Services (ODAS) group also has responsibility for regulating on-demand service providers.  In 2011, the BAI approved the ODAS group’s voluntary Code of Conduct for these providers, although its impact is limited.

However, it is expected that additional regulation addressing harmful content provided by on-demand audiovisual media services will soon be introduced in Ireland.  In March, Minister Bruton announced the plan to bring forward an Online Safety Act which sets out how we can ensure children’s safety online.

He said, “This will involve, for the first time, setting a clear expectation for service providers to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the users of their service. A Regulator, an Online Safety Commissioner, would oversee the new system.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans on freephone 116 123, text 087 260 9090 (standard rates apply) or email or contact Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.

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