Google Searches on Suicide Surge After '13 Reasons Why' Release: Study

In this photo illustration, the Google logo is reflected in the eye of a girl on February 3, 2008, in London. Chris Jackson/Getty

When Netflix released its suicide-focused teen series 13 Reasons Why earlier this year, parents, administrators and doctors alike exploded with worry. From Colorado to Canada, schools banned talk of the show and the book it's based on. Mental health advocates warned about the potential for copycat suicides, and by May at least one mother had blamed the program for inspiring her son to try to kill himself.

But there weren't many hard numbers about the show's effect on people who may be considering self-harm—until now.

Related: Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' Will Return for Season Two

A study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that Google searches for suicide-related terms climbed after the debut of 13 Reasons Why. While researchers saw a spike in queries focused on public health awareness, like "suicide hotline," searches involving ideation, like "how to kill yourself," also rose. (Ideation is the process of forming an idea.)

The study didn't look at whether any search terms came before actual attempts. But it left its author, John W. Ayers, an associate research professor at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health, concerned and demanding that the show be removed immediately and edited before it reaches even more people.

"When people are searching for terms like 'how to commit suicide' or 'painless suicide,' sadly that's a step on the path of a suicide," Ayers tells Newsweek. "Now, with this data, we have a new call to action."

13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a suburban high schooler who takes her own life after being bullied and sexually assaulted by her peers. As her classmates reel from her death, they also discover Hannah left behind a box of cassette tapes on which she recorded the 13 reasons why she killed herself. Through a series of flashbacks, viewers not only learn more about Hannah's decision but watch the fallout from the tapes' circulation. The show concludes with Hannah's graphic suicide.

The series, based on a 2007 novel by Jay Asher and produced by Selena Gomez, brought an important topic into the spotlight. In the U.S. at large, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death; among 15-to-19-year-olds, it's the second.

Ayers wanted to see how 13 Reasons Why may have impacted that. He and his coauthors used Google Trends to identify 20 popular suicide-related search terms, then divided the number of times they were searched by each day and scaled from 0 to 100, according to the paper. They looked at 19 days in particular, starting with the show's release on March 31 and ending on April 18, just before football star Aaron Hernandez's suicide, and compared it to the normal volume of suicide-related searches between January 15 and March 30.

They found that suicide searches in general were 19 percent higher after the show aired, with roughly 1 million more searches than expected. Seventeen of the 20 terms returned higher numbers than expected, and many were related to ideation.

"13 Reasons Why departs so much from the World Health Organization standards [for media professionals addressing suicide] that it's not surprising we're seeing this result. It's causing more harm than good," Ayers says. "Regardless of age, those thinking about suicide are a highly vulnerable audience. So it's reaching the most vulnerable people in the world, and it's reaching them with entirely the wrong message."

Outside experts had a variety of reactions to the results of the study. Steven Stack, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, notes in an email to Newsweek that suicide rates are usually higher in the spring, so the researchers' comparison of April searches to January through March ones may be off base—the queries may have increased simply because that's what happens during the season change. Stack also says nonfiction suicides tend to have more of a copycat effect than fictional ones like Hannah's.

"The assumption is that people tend to identify more with real persons rather than make-believe fictional characters," he adds. "However, it is plausible that in some cases fictional characters might be powerful contributors to suicide risk."

Dr. Albert Yang, a Harvard Medical School instructor, tells Newsweek he'd expect to see more awareness than ideation searches because he thought the show was targeted more toward adults than teenagers. But he also points out it was hard to know just how many young people watched the series, or details of the demographics the Google searches were coming from.

West Virginia University professor Dr. Ian Rockett raises similar questions about who exactly was searching the internet for the information on suicide: Did they watch the show? Were they teenagers? Were they already at high risk for suicide?

Rockett says he's seen only six episodes of 13 Reasons Why but maintains that it could have a positive contribution "in showing bullying and cyberbullying and their capacity to undermine self-confidence among even more self-assured young people, such as the chief protagonist, Hannah." Ayers, on the other hand, has canceled his Netflix subscription despite the service's May 1 decision to add content warnings to the show.

He has some advice as producers start work on the next season.

"I would tell a story that those suffering with suicidal thoughts need to hear, and that's a sucess story: Someone who teetered on the edge, but they were able to survive and persevered, and now they're able to live a full and healthy life," he says. "We need to tell the other story."

Netflix did not return Newsweek's request for comment, though it told The Washington Post it always thought the show would cause more discussion about suicide.

"This is an interesting quasi-experimental study that confirms this," it said in a statement. "We are looking forward to more research and taking everything we learn to heart as we prepare for Season 2."