Should you let your child watch ‘13 Reasons Why’?

New studies show concerns surrounding the Netflix original series depicting suicide had merit. What should parents do?

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There has been much controversy surrounding the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why,” including criticism that it glamorizes suicide. Since the show’s March 2017 release, educators and psychologists warned the program could lead youths to suicide. Several studies released this year indicate that there was reason for concern, leading Netflix to remove a controversial scene ahead of the show’s third season release in August 2019. Should you let your child watch the show –– and what should parents do to help prevent suicide?

Studies examine the first and second seasons of ‘13 Reasons Why’

An April 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry indicates that the concerns could be valid: There was a 28.9% increase in suicide among American boys, ages 10 to 17, in April 2017, a month after the show’s debut. That month had the highest overall suicide rate for boys in that age group for the five-year period researchers examined. Suicide rates for girls ages 10 to 17 — the demographic expected to identify most with the show’s main character, Hannah — did not increase significantly. Over the rest of 2017, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected given historical trends.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, states that it could not prove causation. An unknown third factor also may have been responsible for the increase in suicides. However, the authors cite a strong correlation, and caution against children and teens watching the series. There were no suicide rate trends for adults 18 to 64 during the time period used in the study.

Another study, published in July 2019 in Social & Science Medicine, focused on the second season of the program. It found that young adults, ages 18 to 29, who watched the entire second season of the show “reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all.”

However, researchers noted that if viewers stopped watching before the second season’s end, those viewers “exhibited greater suicide risk and less optimism about the future than those who continued to the end.”

Norton Children’s Medical Group

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Studies and pressure from medical community prompt Netflix to act

“13 Reasons Why” features a high school student, Hannah, who before committing suicide recorded a series of audiotapes for each of the 13 people in her life who led her to make the decision. Netflix announced earlier this summer that it deleted a scene from the first season’s final episode.

“As we prepare to launch Season 3 later this summer, we’ve been mindful about the ongoing debate around the show,” Netflix’s announcement said. “So on the advice of medical experts, including Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we’ve decided with creator Brian Yorkey and the producers of 13 Reasons Why to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life…”

Yorkey, who adapted the book of same name for TV, said in a separate statement: “…No one scene is more important than the life of the show, and its message that we must take better care of each other. We believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”

What parents can do

“It’s parents’ choice about the content their child views,” said Katy Hopkins, Ph.D., behavioral health psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group. “However, you may want to watch the show to vet the content before allowing your child to watch if he or she asks to.”

A study published in Pediatrics earlier this year showed that many parents are unaware that their preteen and teen children (ages 11 to 17) have suicidal thoughts. According to Dr. Hopkins, there are good ways for parents to address concerns that their child is depressed or having thoughts of suicide.

“Talk to them. Ask open, honest questions: Are you having problems with school or your friends? Do you feel suicidal? Do you have a plan? It can be a very scary conversation for a parent to initiate, and maybe even scarier to hear the answer,” she said. “But, it’s likely your child will be relieved you asked. And depending on the answers, you can get the help your child needs.”

Parents, family and friends can remember a phrase to distinguish suicide warning signs: IS PATH WARM? The phrase stands for warning signs, including:

  • IDEATION: Threatened suicide or communicated suicidal thoughts
  • SUBSTANCE ABUSE: Excessive or increased substance abuse as a warning
  • PURPOSELESS: Commenting that he or she has no reasons for living
  • ANXIETY: Shows agitation and insomnia
  • TRAPPED: Feeling like there is no way out
  • HOPELESSNESS: Feeling that the situation may never improve
  • WITHDRAWING: Pulling back from friends, family, community and activities he or she previously enjoyed
  • ANGER (uncontrolled): Displaying rage and revenge-seeking thoughts and behaviors
  • RECKLESSNESS: Participating in risky and impulsive acts
  • MOOD CHANGE: Displaying a drastic change in personality