Copycat Suicides: Why are teenagers the most susceptible demographic?
Today’s teenagers are growing up during the ‘generation of technology;’ constantly engrossed in cell phones, computers, new Netflix shows – the list goes on and on. However, as our media consumptions grows, we are exposed to a large variety of news, often without any sort of filter. This unfiltered media, whether in the form of a song, movie, or TV show, is bound to have damaging effects, especially if it is targeted towards teenagers. The Center for Disease Control reports that suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults. In the US alone, 1 out of every 4 high school students reports that they have seriously considered attempting suicide, and about 8% actually do. While there are many factors that contribute to teen suicides, this increase can be largely attributed to the irresponsible portrayal of suicide and self harm in the media. These are often referred to as “copycat suicides,” defined as “an emulation of another suicide that spurs from depictions of suicide on television or in other media.” Despite these sobering statistics, copycat suicides are rarely talked about, even though their prevalence is steadily increasing. In particular, popular Netflix show 13 Reasons Why is one of the main catalysts for this public health crisis. 13 Reasons Why is a Netflix drama that revolves around seventeen-year-old high school student, Hannah Baker, who killed herself after having to face a culture of gossip, sexual assault, and lack of support. Hannah leaves behind a box of cassette tapes explaining the thirteen reasons why she ended her life. Although the producers of 13 Reasons Why argue that the show is raising suicide awareness, focusing public attention on suicide without taking recommended efforts to minimize harm can be counterproductive and even dangerous.
13 Reasons Why: The Rising Issue
Within 19 days after the release of 13 Reasons Why, Google searches about suicide rose by almost 20%, representing between 900 thousand and 1.5 million more searches than usual regarding the subject. Searches for “how to commit suicide,” “suicide hotline number,” and “teen suicide” significantly rose as well. In other words, even if 13 Reasons Why had increased suicide awareness, it unintentionally increased suicidal ideation. Furthermore, The University of Michigan’s medical center conducted a study that surveyed 87 at risk youth, and documented their responses to the show 13 Reasons Why. According to the study’s results, half of the teenagers who had seen the show reported that it heightened their risk of suicide. Hong, the leader of the study, says that “we should definitely be concerned about its impact on impressionable and vulnerable youth. The concern is about how this may negatively impact youth who are already teetering on the edge.” Additionally, 84% of the surveyed youth reported that they viewed the show alone, and were more likely to talk about it with friends than parents. Hong continues to say that “the data from our sample of teens demonstrated that kids who were at high risk of suicide did not reach out to adults. They mostly watched the show alone or talked to friends, but they weren’t talking to parents, teachers, or school counselors. Youths who are in greatest need of adult support may be less likely to seek it out.” Finally, of the teen viewers who believed that the show increased their suicide risk, the majority strongly identified with the protagonist, Hannah Baker.
According to a survey that I conducted with students at my local highschool, 40% of the participants reported that 13 Reasons Why had had a negative effect on them. Additionally, 60% of the participants admitted that they only talked about the show with friends, and 46.7% said that they felt like they could strongly identify with the main character, Hanna Baker. From these survey results, I could immediately conclude that 13 Reasons Why had negatively effected those in my local community. One of my participants, who wishes to remain anonymous, commented that “The differences between the book [13 Reasons Why] and the show were substantial. While both glorified suicide, the show was so much worse. As a person with a stable home and school life, I couldn’t really relate to Hannah, but could easily see how anyone facing difficulties in their life would consider self-harm after watching the show.”
The Problems with 13 Reasons Why
The main problems with 13 Reasons Why’s portrayal of suicide is that it featured graphic, prolonged suicide scenes, and glamorized suicide as a force for positive change in the protagonist’s community. According to Psychology Today, “13 Reasons Why produces a spotlight that creates a dark, dangerous shadow through its particular narrative style, glamorization of self-injury, and inadequate depiction of available resources.” Indeed, it is the very “popularity” of this show that makes it most dangerous to developing teen brains that are biologically susceptible to influence. According to the survey I conducted (mentioned above), the majority of the participants acknowledged similar problems with the TV show. 63.35% of the participants reported that 13 Reasons Why seemed to irresponsibly glorify and normalize the act of suicide. 73.3% reported that the suicide/self harm scenes in 13 Reasons Why were too graphic or too triggering. Finally, 40% disclosed that mental illnesses were portrayed in a way that made them seem more desirable.
13 Reasons Why’s irresponsible depiction of suicide, self harm, and mental illnesses is precisely why the show is no longer considered an impetus for suicide awareness. Exposing adolescents to graphic depictions of suicide, self harm, rape, and other traumas is extremely damaging, especially if they are trying to process it alone. However, 13 Reasons Why is not only problematic for it’s irresponsible portrayal of suicide; the fact that the producers targeted this show towards teenagers without providing them with resources to get help severely exacerbates the situation.
The Science Behind the Susceptibility of Teenagers:
In a general sense, art and entertainment are very powerful, and modern-day media has proven to be very influential. Television shows can have significant impacts on public health, particularly when they target teenage viewers. An editorial posted at JAMA says that “This immersion into the story [13 Reasons Why] may have had a particularly strong effect on adolescents, whose brains are still developing the ability to inhibit certain emotions, desires, and actions.”
Supplementary research in human neuroscience affirms that the adolescent brain does not mature equally as puberty progresses. The ventral striatum, an area of the brain with the primitive limbic system, is among the first parts of the brain to develop. The ventral striatum is particularly sensitive to popularity and social “reward.” This desire for popularity has evident internal effects – dopamine and oxytocin rush into the ventral striatum. This complicated neuroscience essentially simplifies down to explain the neurological reasoning behind the contagion effect that 13 Reasons Why has sparked. When impressionable teenagers see a relatable, teenage protagonist self harm to reduce emotional suffering on a TV show, their adolescent brains associate self harm and suicide as “cool” at a neural level that the teenagers themselves would not recognize. Because the power of popularity is very strong on both a social and neural level, teenagers are quick to adapt to the dangerous trends as shown in 13 Reasons Why.
So, teenagers are biologically susceptible to influence. However, this does not mean that just teenagers are affected by copycat suicides. I think it is helpful to point out that people of any age or developmental level are susceptible to emulating a suicide, but are not necessarily as susceptible as teenagers.
Call to Action: Change Begins With YOU!
- Spread the hashtag #MEDIASHOULDNOTBETRIGGERING
First, Don’t Ignore the Warning signs
People who die by suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do. The more warning signs, the greater the risk.
Be mindful if a person talks about:
- Killing themselves
- Having no reason to live
- Being a burden to others
- Feeling trapped
- Experiencing unbearable pain
A person’s suicide risk is greater if one or more of the following behaviors has begun or increased, especially if it’s related to a painful event, loss or change.
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online for materials or means
- Acting recklessly
- Withdrawing from activities
- Isolating from family and friends
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
- Giving away prized possessions
People who are considering suicide often display one or more of the following moods:
- Loss of interest
Parent intervention is important! If your child is watching 13 Reasons Why, it is imperative that you discuss what is happening in the show. Exposing adolescents to graphic depictions of suicide, self harm, rape, and other traumas can be extremely damaging if they are trying to process it alone. Teenagers should know that their parents are a resource to talk to when they are trying to understand difficult topics, such as those portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. Additionally, even after the show is over, parents should become accustomed to frequently checking up on their children’s mental health and well-being.
As a teenager, it is important to understand that you, too can create change. Intervene if you are suspicious of a friend’s suicidal behaviors. Inform friends, teachers, and parents about the dangers of shows such as 13 Reasons Why. Prevent other teenagers from consuming triggering media. Talk to your school about instituting a class that raises awareness about this topic, and offer to teach the class or create the curriculum. The opportunities to raise awareness are endless. At my school, I gave a presentation to a group of my peers to inform them of the dangers of copycat suicides and shows like 13 Reasons Why. I specifically chose to present to highschool students because they are the most susceptible demographic for copycat suicides. Following the Sustainable Development Goal of “good health and well-being,” my main goal for this project was to raise local and global awareness, urge people to make change in their respective lives, and promote mental health awareness and well-being.
Contact your local crisis center to find volunteer opportunities in your community.
Engage with me on twitter if you want to discuss tangible ways to take action, create change, or raise awareness.
Please utilize these hotlines if you fear that you or someone you know is considering suicide or self harm. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741
Gilbert, Sophie. “Did 13 Reasons Why Spark a Suicide Contagion Effect?” The Atlantic, 1 Aug. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/08/13-reasons-why-demonstrates-cultures-power/535518/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.
Mostafavi, Beata. “Does Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Influence Teen Suicide?Survey Asks At-Risk Youths.” University of Michigan Health Lab, 20 Nov. 2018, labblog.uofmhealth.org/rounds/does-netflixs-13-reasons-why-influence-teen-suicide-survey-asks-at-risk-youths. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019
Prinstein, Mitch. “‘One Reason Why’ Parents Should Worry About Teen Suicide.”Psychology Today, 17 June 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-modern-teen/201806/one-reason-why-parents-should-worry-about-teen-suicide. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.
Wilson, Colleen, and Kimberly Redmond. “’13 Reasons’: Schools Warn About Impact of Controversial Show.” USA Today, 1 May 2017, www.lohud.com/story/news/education/2017/05/01/netflixs-13-reasons-why-prompts-education-suicide/101024848/. Accessed 11 Apr. 2019.