As the media firestorm surrounding the Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why continues apace, I have become increasingly concerned by several vaunted claims made by commentators in relation to the potential effects of the programme’s depiction of suicide. One of the most frequent criticisms is that watching the series may potentially transmit harmful ‘messages’ into a vulnerable person’s head — invariably a child or teenager — and encourage them to take their own life. This kind of ‘copycat’ syndrome belongs to what is described in the academy as ‘the media effects tradition’; that is, a model of media influence that operates like a hypodermic needle — simply jab the ‘syringe’ (media) directly into the brain and the contents (messages) are injected hook, line and sinker (very much like a drug). The ‘user’ is then ‘taken over’, or ‘possessed’, by the controlling substance and becomes open to all kinds of radical behavioural shifts, thus permitting the authorities to cast blame for an array of society’s ills onto ‘violent’, ‘harmful’ media (juvenile delinquency, criminality, rape, murder, etc.). In such lines of argument, media audiences are at risk of becoming real life Manchurian candidates (or perhaps one of Pavlov’s poor dogs).
Readers may remember various campaigns of this kind, but these fears and anxieties have been on the cultural and political agenda since at least the 1800s. There are far too many to list here with any rigour, but a sample should suffice (all of which carry the weight of establishment opprobrium): Fifty Shades of Grey, (so-called) ‘torture porn’, online pornography, violent video games (Grand Theft Auto being a notable examples), Child’s Play III (the James Bulger case), Rambo (the Hungerford Massacre), heavy metal music, gangsta rap, (so-called) ‘video nasties’, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Beano and The Dandy, horror comics, James Cagney films, and ‘penny dreadfuls’. (Readers will no doubt be aware that Child Play’s III and the entire back catalogue of ‘video nasties’ are readily available in high street stores.)
On one level, it is quite simple to see why this line of argument continues to be rolled out with the force of conviction, especially when one turns to the field of psychology where this kind of ‘research’ is certainly ubiquitous. However, there have been plenty of stern challenges and ripostes from the field of Film, Media and Cultural Studies going back decades — so much so, that Professor David Gauntlett announced (over twenty years ago mind), that the ‘effects’ model has now “reached the end of what was always a hotly-contested, circuitous, and theoretically undernourished line of enquiry” and its “continued survival is unfortunate and indefensible”. Unfortunately, society’s moral watchdogs, governments, and medical professionals, etc – not forgetting the popular presses, of course — all too frequently roll out the same tired, old arguments without much in the way of contestation or empirical evidence. In short, there is no evidence that the ‘effects’ model is built on anything but quicksand, a house of cards that collapses once the ‘evidence’ is fully examined.
While the commentary circulating around 13 Reasons Why, quite remarkably, follows the same (centuries old) narrative, of risk and anxiety about protecting young children, there is also a marked shift. Whereas certain kinds of ‘violent’ (‘harmful’, ‘dangerous’) media have been viewed as corrupting the nation’s youth and leading to a downward spiral of criminality, rape and murder (all of which have been debunked), the tables have now turned to include suicide, an act of self-murder. Further, the figure of the child that invariably stands at the centre of such debates – vulnerable, suggestible, pliable – has now grown up to include teens and young adults. And while the worry about earlier media forms hinged on the potential for ‘de-sensitisation’ – another egregiously comfortable concept with little merit – the furore around 13 Reasons Why re-conceptualises the child as overly sensitive, and wide open to the viral spread of a contagion. Again, there is little empirical evidence to support these outlandish claims; rather, there is a mountain of academic literature that attests to the contrary.
Writing for The Houston Chronicle, Dr. Chris Ferguson, Professor of Psychology at Stetson University, raises some important questions about the methodological problems that have mired this kind of research. More than this, however, reputable suicidologist Steve Stack “concluded that studies examining fictional media were about 79% less likely to find evidence for contagion effects”. Ferguson goes on to speak about the moral panic in the 1980s about teen suicide where, in the US, the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Centre), led by Tipper Gore, made bald claims about the effects of heavy metal music, among other media, on young teens. (Ferguson also asks why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is taught in schools and colleges while 13 Reasons Why is considered hidebound.)
Some of the rhetoric centres on the accusation that the show ‘glamorises’, ‘sensationalises’, and/ or ‘romanticises’ the taking of one’s own life. (How anyone can view the depiction of suicide as either of those descriptions is beyond me.) Parallel to this, is the particularly worrying claim that there is extant research into the effects of media depictions of suicide that unequivocally ‘proves’ that ‘vulnerable’ children, teens or young adults, might be pulled into a process of ‘identification’ with the protagonist, Hannah Baker, and become, quite literally, ‘taken over’ and swallowed up by the fiction.
Much of this is tethered to an unfounded belief in the thorny concept of ‘identification’. As Professor Martin Barker has argued (almost thirty years ago), “it is hard to think of another concept that is so frequently used, yet so little discussed…yet this has not altered the confidence with which it is held”. Indeed, as Barker says in a more recent article, “not only has the concept of ‘identification’ not been tested, it has resisted testing because its status is essentially rhetorical”. The concept, however, is one that is frequently evoked as ‘evidence’ for the syndrome of anxieties and worries attached to claims about media ‘effects’.
Although 13 Reasons Why is accused of being ‘sensationalist’, I worry that the way in which the series is being discussed in the media is even more problematic, and more sensational. On BBC’s The Media Show, for example, Ged Flynn, Chief Executive of Papyrus, claimed that “if you show graphic images of suicide you risk simulative acts [or] for want of a better term, potential copy-cat behaviour”. When asked if “there is any evidence or research that would suggest that this could push vulnerable teens to suicide”, Flynn responds in the affirmative: “Most of your listeners will remember Bridgend in South Wales; there was a number of young suicides that Papyrus was heavily involved in…and when we asked for a global cessation of coverage, the number of suicides reduced significantly and then stopped”. However, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), available data tell us that this is not only problematic, but wrong: the suicide rate in Bridgend actually went up following the cessation of journalistic coverage in the years 2010 – 13, and, although the numbers have dropped in 2012 – 14, they are now on the rise again in 2013 – 2015 (the most recent stats available).
Another factor emerging from these one-sided debates is centred on Ofcom broadcasting regulations and, in journalism, the Editor’s Code of Practice. On the one hand, 13 Reasons Why is not bound to journalistic ethics by law because, quite frankly, it is not a form of non-fictional reportage, but a fictional representation. Still, that argument is often marshalled as a way to slam the show’s portrayal of suicide and, most pointedly, that the method of suicide is shown (one might wonder why the recent non-fiction film, Christine, which clearly depicts the protagonist shooting herself in the head live on television, has not attracted the same amount of invective).
On the other hand, however, Netflix is also not legally bound by Ofcom guidelines because the service is outside the UK’s broadcast jurisdiction — the same could be said, of course, about US subscription services, HBO and Showtime, which are outside of that countries’ network regulations and strictures – and this has led to a clarion call for Netflix to be ethical and responsible despite this legal ‘loophole’. As with most forms of new media, there is an anxiety attached to the affordances of technology and the wide availability of streaming services and the ease with which young people can access Netflix in a domestic setting. (Readers need not be reminded that young people often circumnavigate official channels, such as Netflix, and access ‘free’ streaming services, such as Putlocker, or download illegally via torrent sites, like the seemingly immortal Pirate Bay.)
However, should Netflix be beholden to Ofcom guidelines, the way in which 13 Reasons Why deals with and represents suicide is not verboten at all but, rather, leaves plenty open to interpretation and artistic licence. The main point here is that Ofcom’s codes of practice are for the reporting of suicide, not fictional representations. Even then, Ofcom recommends that broadcasters “should consider whether detailed demonstrations of means or methods of suicide or self-harm are justified”. (Unfortunately, Ofcom also evoke belief in the copy-cat syndrome, that some programmes, in this case, broadcast news, are “likely to encourage people to copy such behaviour”.)
Many in the suicidology community have repeatedly argued that the more suicide is reported in the media, the more people take their own lives. Following this line of argument logically, then, would the furore about 13 Reasons Why not work in direct opposition to what mental health campaigners and the like hope to achieve? What is the difference between reporting on suicide – thus supposedly leading to a rise in suicide rates — and reporting on the way in which media representations of suicide may lead to a new contagion, a direct injection of cause and effect? For if the logic follows, then discussions in the press about suicide (even in relation to fictional portrayals) should also be cause for concern. I strongly believe that the extant discourse about the Netflix series is irresponsible itself and carries all of the hallmarks of a traditional moral panic.
What we have here is a series of hysterical proclamations about what the series could do to a ‘vulnerable’ child, especially one in the throes of suicidal ideation. What complicates the matter even further is that I have no doubt at all that these claims are, firstly, embraced wholeheartedly by psychologists and academics working in cognate disciplines; and, secondly, that these people are acting benevolently. But the way in which these voices are given prime space in the media while disavowing any alternative perspective is worrisome. My aim here is not to intentionally abuse any individual ad hominem, but to plead for a dialogue between media scholars, suicidology academics, the psychology/ psychiatry community, and more besides.
The two fields are certainly at loggerheads and appear to be incommensurable, but it is with some urgency that these incompatibilities need to be addressed and a bridge is to be built between disciplines. To this end, I am one of six researchers who are tracking and mapping the controversy to isolate what is being said and by whom; and also to conduct research into media audiences of 13 Reasons Why. Indeed, the media reports are quite at odds with the series’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes (currently at 86%), and even a cursory glean of various hashtags on Twitter clearly demonstrate that many people have been positively affected by the series. Is there anyway at all that the series’ narrative has a protective, prosocial value? For instance, Geb Flynn claims that there has been a noticeable rise in people phoning the Papyrus helpline to seek help since the release of 13 Reasons Why and that this is a source of concern. Lucy Mae Baers, writing for The Daily Mail, leads with the headline, “Hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why accused of ‘risky’ suicide messages and is blamed for a ‘growing number of calls’ to teenage helplines”. What the research actually shows, however, is the opposite. For example, Holden found that the BBC TV series, The Befrienders, “was associated with an increased knowledge of, and referrals to, the Samaritans”, and that this was viewed as productive and positive. Other studies, such as that by Hawton et al. (1999) and O’Connor et al (1999), found evidence that a 1996 episode of the BBC medical drama, Casualty, which featured a character overdosing on paracetamol, actually “increased the general public’s knowledge of the effects of paracetamol […] and that this sometimes had positive effects” (cited in Pirkis and Blood, 2001).
That being said, much of the research on suicide in psychology, and other cognate disciplines, is remarkably contradictory, especially given the way in which mental health campaigners and medical professionals claim to have ‘research’ on their side. In regards to fictional representations, Pirkis and Blood’s overview of extant literature – which I recommend to those wanting to explore further — clearly demonstrates the level of conflict, contestation and contradiction from within the field itself, never mind that from without.
13 Reasons Why has opened up communication about suicide. We do need to talk about suicide; but the way in which this is currently being framed with media as scapegoat is more sensational and, arguably, more harmful than the series could ever be. In what ways does the focus on harm, danger, and ‘effects’ work to inadvertently promote the series? Might a young person not read the discursive kerfuffle and see it as a kind of ‘dare’? Not that I have a problem with people watching the series, of course, but that the logic of the campaigners includes multiple contradictions and paradoxes. (One particular egregious Mail Online article includes explicit details of the method used by Hannah Baker while carrying protests from the National Association of School Psychologists against the show for doing the same!)
I plead with readers and academics to use this opportunity to discuss suicide responsibly, as opposed to overly simplistic and reductive narratives of risk, panic, and the rhetoric of harm. Following Ferguson, then,
if the attention to 13 Reasons Why helps families talk about mental health and suicide, this is a good thing. But scapegoating media comes with real risks that such efforts will refocus the conversations away from pressing issues such as family stress and mental health reform in the United State [and across the world].
Dr. William Proctor is Lecturer in Media Culture and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. He is currently writing his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. William has published on a variety of topics linked to popular culture, such as Star Wars, The Walking Dead, Remake/ Reboots, Fan Cultures and Batman. He is the Director of the World Star Wars Project; co-director of the Transmedia Earth Project (with Matthew Freeman) and one of three key investigators on the Game of Thrones audience project (with Martin Barker and Clarissa Smith).