After the Netflix original show "13 Reasons Why" aired in March, researchers found that Google queries about instructions on how to commit suicide spiked a significant amount.
The show is a teen suicide mystery, in which a boy named Clay attempts to unravel the mystery of why his crush Hannah committed suicide after he received a box containing audio recordings made by Hannah two weeks later.
According to Wired, the show received a hefty amount of criticism for portraying the act of suicide as a "glorified scavenger hunt," instead of covering the aspects of mental illness, and teenage depression. Op-eds were written by psychologists, wondering why the World Health Organization's guidelines on suicide portrayal were not followed.
All of the concern centered on the fear that impressionable teens would see suicide as something to be encouraged.
John W. Ayers, a computational epidemiologist who studies public health at San Diego State University, decided to take up the question as to whether or not the show had actually presented a danger to the public.
“There was a tremendous amount of debate going on all based on deeply personal experiences that wasn’t going anywhere,” Ayers said. “We saw a need for real data.”
According to Wired, Ayers and his collaborators at John Hopkins, University of Washington, and the University of Southern California, published data that seemingly proved many people's fears correct.
Ayers and his team had gathered U.S. search queries between the series' release date on March 31, and April 18. Due to search queries about Aaron Hernandez’s prison suicide possibly contaminating the data, April 18 was chosen as the cutoff date. News of the former NFL tight end's apparent suicide broke on April 19th.
Having looked into all search queries that contained the word "suicide" — removing all searches that included the addition of "squad" due to the release of the movie "Suicide Squad" — Ayers and his team found stunning results.
According to Wired, in the 19 days following the show's release, internet searches for "suicide" shot up 20 percent, totaling between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches than expected.
While it could be dismissed as people attempting to search for the show, of the top 16 queries that saw the biggest spikes, a third of them pertained to methods to specific methods of suicide.
Ayers concluded that the show wasn't raising awareness about the dangers of suicide, but actively encouraging it. While there was an uptick in searches for help with suicide prevention, searches such as “quick suicide,” “painless suicide,” and “how to kill yourself,” were equally as popular.
“If it was truly raising awareness, we’d see a very different outcome,” Ayers said.
“That’s troubling,” Ayers added. “Even with the best of intentions, it’s clear this show has real world consequences.”
Not everyone is as troubled as Ayers is about the results. According to Wired, head of UCLA's Center for Digital Behavior and the University of California’s Institute for Prediction Technology, Sean D. Young, said that these searches don't reveal intent.
As Google tends to auto-populate searches with additional suggested searches as you type, some people's curiosity may get the best of them, and they will click on search topics to scratch an itch to delve deeper into the darker parts of the internet to know more.
“It helps you pick up what people have learned about suicide from the show,” Young said. “But it’s important to not get freaked out that the show is causing people to go kill themselves. I don’t see the evidence for that.”