TV shows can impact the culture in countless ways.
Remember “The Rachel?” Jennifer Aniston’s cute ‘do on NBC’s “Friends” became the go-to style for a spell. Or consider the countless catch phrases fueled by hit shows.
- “No soup for you!”
- “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis?”
- “Sock it to me!”
Some TV show side effects are neither whimsical nor inspiring. Netflix’s buzzy series “13 Reasons Why” quickly caught the zeitgeist following its 2017 debut.
The show, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, followed a depressed teenager named Hannah (Katherine Langford) deciding to end her life. Battered by vile gossip, Hannah leaves a series of audio cassettes detailing her decision behind before ending her life.
The first season inspired both critical praise and some concern. Select social critics worried the narrative glamorized suicide. That, plus the show’s hearty teen audience, could yield suicidal copycats.
Superintendents and school counselors around the country have issued warnings to parents that “13 Reasons Why” glorifies suicide and could lead to an increase in copycat behavior and self-harm among vulnerable students. “We are concerned about our children watching this series without adult supervision because it romanticizes and sensationalizes the idea of suicide,” Lisa Brady, superintendent of schools in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., wrote in an email to parents.
A National Institutes of Health study released in April suggested the show’s critics may have a point.
In the month following the show’s debut in March 2017, there was a 28.9% increase in suicide among Americans ages 10-17, said the study, published Monday in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The number of suicides was greater than that seen in any single month over the five-year period researchers examined. Over the rest of the year, there were 195 more youth suicides than expected given historical trends.
Researchers warn that their study could not prove causation. Some unknown third factor might have been responsible for the increase, they said. Still, citing the strong correlation, they cautioned against exposing children and adolescents to the series.
Netflix hasn’t ignored the show’s critics. The service installed a “viewer warning card” before the first episode to warn viewers about the program’s difficult subject matter. Netflix also created the web site 13ReasonsWhy.info, where viewers could explore resources surrounding depression and suicide.
Among the site’s information? A national suicide prevention hotline number -- 1 800-273-8255.
The worries bloomed anew this week during a June 6 Netflix shareholders’ meeting. The Parents Television Council, a group which has hounded Netflix over troubling aspects of “13 Reasons Why,” asked Netflix CEO Reed Hastings a question based on the recent study.
Now that the National Institutes of Health has released its findings linking season 1 of “13 Reasons Why” with a 30% increase in suicides among children ages 10-17, what are the board of directors and management of Netflix prepared to do about “13 Reasons?”
Hastings’ response during the meeting?
“We’ve seen this study. We’ve got it. We are talking with the researchers. This is a really critically important topic and we’ve worked hard to ensure that we’ve handled this sensitive issue responsibly.”
PTC President Tim Winter issued the following response:
“While we appreciate that the one and only question you chose to address during your annual shareholder meeting came from us, the answer you gave is morally and logically bankrupt. If the link between an increase in teen suicides and one of your television programs is ‘critically important,’ as you suggest, then why is it still being distributed on your platform 37 days after NIH published their findings? The responsible thing to do is remove the program from your platform immediately, and keep it off until the program is proven not to be harmful to children.”
Yanking art from a platform, any platform, invites risks. Still, it wouldn’t be without precedent. Just try watching Disney’s “Song of the South,” a beloved 1946 film dubbed racist decades after its release.
The film isn’t available on DVD or other home video services. It won’t be part of Disney’s upcoming streaming platform, either.
Is Netflix comfortable with two seasons of “13 Reasons Why” being available on its platform -- and Season 3 coming later this year?