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'13 Reasons Why' May Have Sparked Alarming Trend In Online Searches About Suicide

A new study sheds light on the show's possible effects on viewers.

08/02/2017 08:57 EDT | Updated 08/02/2017 09:29 EDT

There's no doubt "13 Reasons Why" has become a pop-culture phenomenon. But while many applaud the show for shedding light on mental health issues, many experts have criticized it for its "dangerous" portrayal of suicide. Now a new study suggests there's truth to the latter argument.

According to research published at JAMA Internal Medicine, the series has actually increased online searches on how to die by suicide.

In case you're unfamiliar with the Netflix series, "13 Reasons Why" is about a teen girl named Hannah Baker who takes her own life and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why.

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Hannah Baker's locker in "13 Reasons Why."

Using Google Trends, researchers found a 20 per cent increase in searches regarding suicide just 19 days after the show first aired in March. In that time, there were between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches on the topic.

Researchers looked at search terms that specifically included the word "suicide," but omitted the term "squad" in order filter out inquiries for the film "Suicide Squad" and keep their data accurate. They then compared search trends from January 15 and March 30 of this year to trends from March 31, which is the show's release date, and April 18, the day before the anniversary of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez's suicide death.

Search terms such as "how to kill yourself," "commit suicide," "suicide prevention" and "how to commit suicide" all rose by 9, 18, 23 and 26 per cent, respectively. The study did not explore how these trends compared to years prior to 2017.

The study cited other research that found that searches about suicide are associated with suicide death, although the study's authors did not explore that directly in the search trends research.

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Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford.

"The time for rhetorical debate is over," said John Ayers, the study's lead author and research professor at San Diego State University. "While '13 Reasons Why' has certainly caused the conversation to begin — it's raised awareness, and we do see a variety of suicide-related searches increasing — our worst fears were confirmed. That is, thousands of people, thousands more, are searching online about ways to kill themselves."

Our worst fears were confirmed. That is, thousands of people, thousands more, are searching online about ways to kill themselves.

The show recently began filming Season 2, but due to this new research, Ayers is hoping the show will postpone production.

"We are calling on Netflix to remove [Season 1] and edit its content to align with World Health Organization (WHO) standards before reposting," Ayers said, referring to the WHO's guidelines on how to responsibly depict suicide.

"Moreover, the planned second season, and all suicide-related media, might undergo testing before wide release to prevent well intended content from producing unintended results," he added.

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Clay Jensen and Hannah Baker, played by Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford.

Showrunners had not responded to the study's findings at the time of this post's publish.

According to WHO, approximately 800,000 people die from suicide each year, globally.

Canada, specifically, has seen a rise in teen suicide rates over the years and suicide is now the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 10 and 24, the Canadian Mental Health Association reports.

There is a responsibility for broadcasters to know what they are showing and the impact that certain content can have on an audience.

Previously, mental health groups warned "13 Reasons Why" may cause "more harm than good." Unfortunately, it looks like they might be right. Not only has the show caused an alarming number of people to have suicidal thoughts, as evidenced by this new study, but there has already been a copycat suicide as a result of the show.

Back in April, Dr. Steven Leicester, of Australia's National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace, said in a statement: "There is a responsibility for broadcasters to know what they are showing and the impact that certain content can have on an audience – and a young audience in particular."

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