Last week, the internet had a collective freakout over a viral study that purportedly claimed the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why was "associated with a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates."
13 Reasons Why is a teen drama based on a book of the same name by Jay Asher. It's about a female high school student who kills herself, leaving behind cassette tapes for her various friends and enemies that elucidate her motives. Controversy has always surrounded the show: Some mental health experts believe that exposure to media portrayals of suicide can have a "contagion" effect that make people more likely to commit suicide themselves.
"Research shows that exposure to another person's suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide," said the National Association of School Psychologists in a statement released in March 2017, when the show debuted.
A team of researchers have now produced a study that supposedly shows a correlation between increased teen suicide and, specifically, the release of 13 Reasons Why. It was recently accepted for publication in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and has generated significant media coverage. "Suicides spiked in the months after Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, study finds," warns The Washington Post. "'13 Reasons Why' hurts teenagers and Netflix should drop the show," insists a Dallas Morning News writer in an earlier piece that was republished "in light of the news" about the study. A Daily Mirror piece that explicitly links the death of a British teenager with the show also cites the study. The New Yorker suggests that 13 Reasons Why was associated with increased teen suicides but ultimately capitalism is to blame for giving us Netflix in the first place (cue Dr. Ian Malcom).
Unfortunately, the study is bunk. It does not even begin to demonstrate that 13 Reasons Why is the cause of the phenomenon the researchers are documenting.
The problems are myriad. The study shows a rise in suicides in the months following the release of the show. But researchers have no proof that the teenagers who committed suicide over the observed time period had watched the show, or that they heard about the show, or that their deaths had anything to do with the show—this is all purely theoretical.
Moreover, while April—the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why—did contain a spike in teen suicides, so did March. The researchers theorize that these suicides might be associated with the the release of the trailer for the show, but that's quite a stretch. (In any case, a teaser trailer was released all the way back in January.) Later in 2017, June and December also have higher-than-normal teen suicide rates. Is this also the fault of 13 Reason's Why, or are researchers just playing with numbers in order to manufacture a result that sort of fits their hypothesis? I, too, have a theory!
Another fatal cut: Researchers only observed an increase in male teen suicides, even "though previous studies indicate that suicide contagion disproportionately affects those who strongly identify with the person who died by suicide." But 13 Reasons Why is about a teenage girl's suicide. Why didn't female suicides spike as much as male suicides—or, like, at all? "Reasons for this finding are unclear," the study's authors concede.
Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University statistician, writes, "I can see the logic of the argument that a dramatization of suicide can encourage copycats; more generally, TV and movies have lots of dramatizations of bad behavior, including horrible crimes. I just don't think there are any easy ways of cleanly estimating their effects with these sorts of aggregate statistical analyses, and this particular paper has some issues."
Yes, and that's being charitable. Libertarian writer Daniel Bier, whose Facebook post first drew my attention to the glaring flaws in this study, makes note of the researchers' baffling conclusion, which reeks of an agenda. "There is no discernible public health benefit associated with viewing the series," they write. This is, of course, ridiculous. Lots of activities have no discernible public health benefits, but are enjoyable nonetheless. Who cares? If the activity in question is harmful, that's worth taking into account. The burden of proof, though, is not on the consumer of an activity: The burden is on the researchers to prove it's bad, which is something these folks manifestly failed to do.