Ethics Quiz: “13 Reasons Why”

“13 Reasons Why” is a Netflix  television series based on the 2007 novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. A high school student receives a box containing 13 cassette tapes recorded by his friend Hannah Baker, before she committed  suicide. The show has been a critical and popular success (although the Times didn’t like it much) , and a second season is planned.

But Researcher John Ayers of San Diego State University has studied the results of the show on the culture by monitoring discussions of suicide on the internet following the debut of “13 Reasons Why.” The phrases “how to commit suicide” and “commit suicide”  have experienced a 26% and 18% increase in searches. Ayers sees no other explanation for this other than the show.  Searches for the phrase “suicide hotline number” also jumped, by 21%

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

Ayers wants the first season to be re-edited to discourage suicidal behavior, and argues that the second season should be postponed. “Psychiatrists have expressed grave concerns because the show ignores the World Health Organization’s validated media guidelines for preventing suicide. The show’s staff instead continue to prefer their gut instincts,” Ayers says.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this head-scratcher…

Is it ethical for Netflix to continue running the series in light of Ayers’ research and recommendations?

I’m not 100% certain (when I’m certain, I don’t make the topic a quiz), but my inclination is to say yes. Not only that,  I think it would be an unethical precedent to pull it.

Google searches aren’t destiny. I’m certain that searches involving zombies went way up after AMC’s “The Walking Dead” first started wreaking its carnage. I’m old enough to remember when the Catholic Church and anti-TV violence activists argued that shows like “The Untouchables” were turning kids into murderous juvenile delinquents, and when their campaigns to pull “Superman” off the air because a couple of boys jumped out of windows trying to fly—or so it was rumored—even that non-violent program was threatened. Not a single teen suicide has been linked to the “13 Reasons” book or the series. Now the door is open for the “if it saves only one life” rationalization.

I think Ayers has hit on a way to make a publicity splash, especially in a culture that increasingly is being told that censorship and suppression of speech and expression are solutions to all kinds of ills, and in a society that has a major party increasingly willing to call mere speech dangerous.



30 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: “13 Reasons Why”

  1. I don’t feel qualified to take the quiz, as I’ve never seen the show. But I’d wager that if I did watch it, I wouldn’t like it.

    Does the show make the suicide victim/perpetrator out to be a sort of beyond-reproach combination of saint and victim, rather than someone who committed what was ultimately a cruel and selfish act? I’d bet the answer is yes.

    Does it show the dead girls’ friends, foes, and family to be wracked with guilt and shame over how they treated her, and wondering what they could have done differently to keep her happy (you know, just as those contemplating suicide like to imagine and hope that they will make everyone feel?) Again, I find it likely.

    Does the show give any serious and respectable voice to the idea that maybe, just maybe, suicide is a spiteful, self-centered and cowardly thing to do, and that by killing yourself you are devastating countless people who cared about you and don’t deserve to suffer their whole lives? I’m guessing that point of view would be portrayed as mean.

    I could be wrong about the above, but if I’m not, then Netflix probably set out to “start a conversation” about suicide and ended up just making suicide porn, as often happens. I don’t think they should re-edit or cancel the show or anything, but hopefully they won’t create something as dumb as this in the future, and neither will anyone else.

    • When you are in enough pain to consider it you are not thinking straight and need help. It takes a lot of stenghth to fight the depression that drives many to it!

      • Which is exactly why I think it’s possible that something like a TV show could push someone over the brink in that fragile mental state. Television is a very vivid medium and the brain quite literally shuts down and stops thinking for itself when engrossed in a show or movie (which is to say, the “imagining” part of the brain goes idle and we basically go into a receptive state.) Dramatic depictions of just how ashamed all of your enemies will feel if you kill yourself could be just the last bit of “encouragement” a person needs.

  2. OK— this issue is one I have spent years delving into. I spent the better part of a decade doing volunteer work; interviewing techniques at Georgetown hospital with student actors to help train pediatric medical students on how to find youth that are engaging in or thinking about behaviors that put themselves at risk.

    I hope to return to doing this at some point, but my health and then and my business challenges have put my volunteer work on hold. Doctors Abrams and Hawkins have done amazing work on developing tools to reach at risk adolescents. Here is what I know.

    75% of teen deaths in this country are avoidable if there is intervention on time. Suicide is the second leading cause of youth death, and LGBT youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to commit the act. Thank god for the Trevor project and It Gets Better campaigns: they help. In the 90’s when I tried to create suicide prevention programs through theater (your website spelt it your way Jack) I was told by administrators that we could not do this as it might give the kids “ideas”. Ugh. the statistics show they already have the ideas.

    If we do not bring it out and talk about it we can not discuss it and prevent it. I have been meaning to watch the series, but with the other things going on in my life I have not had time. This Show has opened the discussion: good. The idiots who what to hide the discussion are killing our kids. Is that Ethical?

    As a theater educator I have had a hand in getting three kids help when I discovered their pain. I do not often talk about it as it is their choice if they want to share their survival stories. Growing up as a gay kid with Aspergers and a weight problem I knew bullies, and I had those Dark thoughts, but I also had a deep faith that helped me through. Yes, gay people can be people of faith! Besides I was not going to give my bullies the satisfaction of beating me down. Though I cried myself to sleep most every night of my senior year of high school. I survived let’s talk about it! I will always fight to survive!

  3. I can’t speak about the show itself, but I looked into the book when an amateur fanfic of a fictional cast took the idea and ran with it in a different, already tragic setting. The book and the pastiche deal heavily with the mess the suicide left behind both on the ones that loved them and those who exacerbated the suicide’s issues, knowingly or not.

    I can answer those questions for the pastiche, which seems to be following the original’s outline. So @Isaac’s answers there are 1) NO. The suicide is not a pristine victim. Their selfishness is clear and includes post-death blackmail. 2) yes and no, it depends on the character. But it also shows the better ones dealing with the mess and helping others, not wallowing or denial. 3) is sort of a repeat of the selfish in #1. Coward and spiteful doesn’t apply in the imitation because there are other plot and character threads that will not be in 13 reasons. I will say I doubt it is in the show as the greater theme seems to be how everyone is hurt and look out for others, not assume.

    While I have a limited tolerance for giving up in my fiction and prefer taking arms against troubles’ seas, examining suicide is not a new thing in drama. And how often is Hamlet still banned? If you can’t show it, warts and all, how can it be prevented? I do think the 13 reasons leans a little too heavily on the jerks, and not on good influences, but that story like many YA oversimplifies to make a heavy handed point. What it does do, is deal with all the darker things instead of the sunshiny optimism from people who don’t understand that makes things worse.

    13 Reasons is dark but it isn’t hopeless. Hope is the most important thing to remind those at risk. This kind of interpersonal conflict makes for far better drama than most YA materials because these are real issues. Banning or Bowdlerizing it would be stupid and not do anything against the problem of suicide.

    • I’d be relieved to be wrong. I read a couple of reviews, some of which made my assumptions sound completely correct, and some opinions (like yours) that went the other way. Like most stories, I think people see different things in it.

      Which raises another point– people are “inspired” in very hard-to-predict-ways by art. A song that’s supposed to be depressing can cheer someone up; a funny movie can make someone feel like depressed. Someone with the brain of Charles Manson can be inspired by the Beatles to commit murder. Our brains “filter” outside information differently and we see what we want to see, which is another reason for Netflix not to pull the show.

      I just place exactly zero confidence in entertainment media to make any kind of positive difference socially. I understand why everyone from kids to parents loves the idea of a TV show, song, or movie changing the world for the better or being educational. But those are amusements, not sustenance. If Alice spends 30 hours a week talking to people and making friends for 10 years, and Bob spends the same amount of time binge-watching inspirational TV shows…I’m pretty confident about which one is going to be more equipped to help people in the end.

  4. I would say freaking out over an increase in google searches over anything is kinda stupid.

    It could be that these are people who had been hiding their severe depression are reaching out because of the show, I know google automatically shows you the help line info if you google anything related to “kill yourself”.

    Censoring media because you’re worried that it would encourage poor behavior feels like censoring video games because you’re worried they promote violence.

    Now, MAYBE if we saw an actual increase in suicide rates themselves, but even then how are you going to present any sort of reliable proof that a netflix show is responsible for it?

    Disclaimer: I have not seen the show.

  5. Oh great; another genius statistical analysis.

    “Researcher John Ayers of San Diego State University has studied the results of the show on the culture by monitoring discussions of suicide on the internet following the debut of ’13 Reasons Why.’ “

    When you start a statistical analysis with a preconceived notion (as most do) that the show is negatively affecting culture (culture – really?) and it’s going to somehow cause suicides, you damn well better prove your notion with lots of statistical mumbo-jumbo.

    “The phrases “how to commit suicide” and “commit suicide” have experienced a 26% and 18% increase in searches. Ayers sees no other explanation for this other than the show. “

    Mr. “Ayers sees no other explanation for this other than the show” because Ayers is not looking for any other explanation for the perceived increase. When you start a statistical analysis with a preconceived notion that the show is affecting culture and you tunnel vision your methods and assumptions to prove that notion what do you expect to get for results? With logic like Ayers, what more proof could any person want – yes that was sarcasm.

    The problem with statistical analysis like this one is that they are assuming that the show is the cause of the discussions and then they assume that result of perceived increased in discussions containing the particular phrases they searched for automatically implies that there are lots of teens seriously contemplating suicide just because they watched a TV show! Ayers has no idea who the people are that used the phrases, he has no idea what drove the people to use the phrases, he has no idea if the show is causing them to consider suicide, he has no idea if the show is encouraging suicide discussion instead of suicide action, he just assumes that an increase in discussion is a bad thing, the show is the source of the problem, and the show needs to change.

    “Searches for the phrase “suicide hotline number” also jumped, by 21%”

    Maybe the show has encouraged those with suicidal tendencies to recognize that they might have a problem and call the suicide hotline instead of actually killing themselves.

    A while back I posted this here…

    I wrote, “You can use statistics to “prove” just about anything, it just depends on the subjects chosen to participate in the survey, how the survey is conducted, and how the data is compiled; all you have to do is use your imagination.

    Consider the following:
    A statistical analysis was done to find out what cat turds taste like, and the results showed that cat turds tastes like chicken.

    Just because a statistical analysis has been conducted and a conclusion reached does NOT mean that what “The Survey Says” actually represents reality.”

    Now for the question…

    Is it ethical for Netflix to continue running the series in light of Ayers’ research and recommendations?

    Correlation does not equal causation and Ayers is another in a long, long line of statistical hacks. This study proves absolutely nothing and is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction based on assumptions and trying to make correlation equal causation so NO this study should not change the Netflix show in any way.

    P.S. I’ve never seen the show and likely never will.

    P.S.S. Is this a round-about ploy to increase viewers for the show?

    • I agree with your post. Interestingly, being the parent of a young teen, one of my first thoughts on the google searches is how many were parents looking up the information with an idea on what to look out for if their kids were thinking about it. I’m sure that’s not something Ayers considered. So even if it IS the show, it does not mean it’s a negative thing.

  6. So,my initial thought (shaped strongly by my vocation as a librarian), is that from the point of view of keeping would-be censors in check, Netflix must keep the show that has been aired available, in its current form. Professional ethics within my field call for us to strongly oppose attempts to censor or change a work due people’s concerns about its content.

    But that got me started thinking… Are Netflix, and similar streaming resources, really libraries? Should they be bound by the same ethical considerations that libraries are?

    I don’t think that the people working at Netflix or Hulu or any other streaming service think of themselves as librarians. Certainly, the people at the top of the chain are thinking in terms of profits and loss – Netflix and Hulu both produce original content, in the goal of maximizing profit and having a niche collection that will draw and retain customers using their resources. They have no desire or expectation to serve everyone – instead, their goal is to serve those who can pay them.

    To modern American sensibilities, this probably means they sound nothing like the libraries we’ve grown up with. But the conception of the library as a free and public institution is actually a relatively new one – throughout most of history, libraries have been exclusive, to one degree or another; some charging use fees, others memberships and dues, or being strictly limited to certain individuals and classes making use of them. Netflix and other streaming providers are far closer to this original formulation of a library than I think many people realize.

    Which, to my mind, means that they should be bound by the same ethical considerations a physical library is, when it comes to material… namely, that their highest concern must be protecting the intellectual freedom of their users. It is the right of the censor to express themself, and say they find a work objectionable – even to argue vociferously to others that they should not learn the ideas contained within that work; But those of us who are responsible for creating collections and providing access to information must always remember that such a right exists only as long as each person is free to hold and form their own opinions, and seek out and consume whatever information they want. Whenever there is conflict between these two rights, the censor, for all his righteous indignation and noise, must be the one who gives way.

    If Netflix does give in to Ayers’ request, I think it would be unethical. And in the long run that it will be an unfortunate thing for all of us.

  7. Something short that no one else has brought up:

    I’m a writer, and my friends and I frequently joke about how many watchlists we must be on for our Google searches: “what caliber bullet can shoot through a solid wooden door?” “How to care for a bullet wound without medical professionals”… I have a chart I found of how long it takes a human to die in different extreme circumstances.

    So… a popular media property gained international attention, and searches for the central detail went up (along with a piece of information that’s frequently included at the end of shoes and stories about suicide.)

    My bet is that writers hoping to cash in and fanfic writers for the series make up a sizable portion off those searches, and normal variation makes up the rest. I bet the search for “vampire” got popular after Twilight became popular, but I think I missed the vampire epidemic.

    So no, pulling the show based on something that has other perfectly reasonable explanations (that wouldn’t get the researchers national media attention) would be silly.

  8. There is a difficult question here that I’ve been wrestling with myself, and this is to what extent do books and TV shows actually influence the behavior of people who read and watch them? Like most controversial topics, the research I’ve found is conflicted, with some studies confirming a link between increased behavior due to books and television, and others denying any link at all.

    My own viewpoint is that there is bound to be some influence, especially on people under the age of 25. There are plenty of studies that show that brain maturation doesn’t really complete until the mid-20’s, and from the onset of adolescence until that time, teens and young adults are striving to form their own identities. One of the means of doing so is the emulation of role-models. Thus anyone who steps forward as a role model — especially the protagonist of popular book or movie or TV show — has a fair amount of influence on that sector of the population. There’s not any absolute involved, of course, and not everyone will look to the same place for role models, but I don’t think the overall influence can be downplayed. Young people will look at what happens to their heroes as use that a precedent of what could happen, and to a lesser extent, what should happen.

    On a broader scale, we know that people at large are susceptible to what they see and read. The most obvious case is advertising. If television commercials and billboards and internet popups did not influence people’s behavior, they would not be lucrative. It isn’t that much of a jump to suspect that, if repeated exposure to a 30-second commercial makes one more inclined to eat more chicken, then repeated exposure to a television series where the protagonist solves all his problems with his fists (and such behavior is portrayed as laudatory) will make one more inclined to solve problems through fighting. Similarly, if repeated exposure to television shows where gay couples are portrayed in a positive light influences the public at large to be more supportive of the LGBT community, it stands to reason that repeated exposure to television shows where the protagonist sleeps around would influence people to emulate that activity.

    At the same time, counterbalancing all that, is the fact that people by and large have a decent understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy. They might enjoy the fantasy, and they might even wish they could indulge in that fantasy, but real-world limitations prevent them from ever realistically considering engaging in that fantasy. The one thing I will say to that, though, is that any behavioral psychologist will tell you that any deviant action is usually preceded by a great deal of cognitive activity, as the brain considers the idea, has a great deal of byplay with emotional factors that strive to make the idea more feasible, and finally, after a fair amount of wrestling with the idea, makes the decision to engage in that activity. If the idea isn’t there to begin with, there wouldn’t be that wrestling match.

    I don’t think a television show simply dealing with the topic of suicide would greatly influence people to commit suicide, and I agree with Rip above that bringing to light the problem of suicide, the problem of depression and social problems that lead people to contemplate suicide, is a very good thing. However, if the television show becomes a form of suicide pornography (such as overly fixating on the means of suicide, as opposed to the reasons for suicide and the devastation that suicide causes) then I think there could be a very good argument that the show should be pulled as an unhealthy endeavor. Just as I would suggest that a movie that romanticizes suicide is probably setting up a bad precedent that will have an unhealthy attraction on people who are struggling with pain and desire an end to their suffering.

    So, having not seen the show myself, I can only suggest that as long as it seeks to deepen the conversation about suicide and suicide prevention, it should be allowed to continue. However, if it glorifies suicide in any way, or it obsesses over the means of committing suicide, then it will have crossed the line into objective harm and probably should not have any further airing.

    • This has always interested me as well. My best guess is that media does influence people, especially young people, however the negative possible effects on society are negated by the fact that young people generally watch so much media that they are physically less capable of getting into trouble. Crime is a young man’s game, and young men today are spending an extra 8 hours on their butts at home that they would have spent potentially getting into trouble in meatspace back in the ’70s. You’d expect that to make a huge dent in violent crime, and I believe it does. It also explains how it appears that people are getting nastier and less empathetic, while violence has decreased.

  9. I agree with you. Because suicide was “googled” doesn’t mean teens were doing it to research taking their lives. What a leap.

    Maybe non teens were googling to see the reality of how bad suicide is? Maybe parents were searching to find out more about their kid’s lives?

    To assume it was just teens looking for ways to end their lives seems typical of poor thinking and finding evidence to support one’s bias.

    I agree with you, Jack! 🙂 shocker huh? 🙂 haha.

  10. Entertainment is not education. Netflix airs the show to turn a profit, and certainly is their right in a free society to do so.

    The age old debate of art imitating life or influencing it will rage forever, but to the comment above about the effective nature of advertising, we’d be foolish to think that entertainment also doesn’t have influence.

    With so many out these types of topics, this has the feel of “everybody does it”, so why shouldn’t Netflix?

    If one wishes to educate, produce a documentary; the stories can be well told and the “drama” is real. Putting the topic on Netflix in a “popular show” is just pimping it out.

    • My guess, Michael, would be not at all. Assisted suicide, where it is legal, requires informed consent, which non-adults are presumed not to be able to give.

  11. There have been some recent serial tv shows about teen pregnancy. Recent statistics have shown that the proportion of teen pregnancies is dropping, if I’m not mistaken.

    There may be a correlation here but I don’t think so. I think it’s more effective birth control.

    But it is good to know that calls to suicide-prevention hotlines have increased.

  12. ‘ Ayers sees no other explanation for this other than the show’

    The Massachusetts texting suicide case has been in the news for months, and the text message transcripts have been on several news sites. I’m not in the US to see how saturated the coverage was, but it’s the type of story news outlets usually beat to death, so I assume saturation coverage as the sentencing date neared. I’d expect that to reach more people than Netflix…

  13. Learned about the new series, spoke to my kids about it, explaining the flaws in the premise and how the show exalted suicide. Asked them not to see it, and if our Netflix history pops that show, someone will lose their device for a while.

    Parenting. Carrot and stick, personal responsibility and teaching consequences. We decided that our kids (teens) did not need to be exposed to this garbage, and took steps to prevent the problem. We do the same for movies, You Tube, and TV.

    Netflix has every right to follow up if there is an audience (or an agenda) in their favor. They are not responsible ethically to yank the show, or not produce another. Did I mention personal responsibility?

  14. After 20 years of working under the umbrella of suicide prevention lines, the comment “Our worst fears were confirmed That is, thousands of people, thousands more, are searching online about ways to kill themselves” is about to be recast.

    After reading those statistics, our greatest success has been confirmed. That is, thousands of people, thousands more, are searching online to answer any and all of their questions so they do not have to suffer in silence, to show them that they are not different and not alone, to give them ways to recognize danger signs not only in themselves, but in their family and friends, and to provide both immediate and long-term non-judgmental support, help and rescue — both peer and professional — as needed for themselves and others.

    Thanks for posting this, Jack.

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