Understanding the Suicide Contagion

Winter 2018

“We have decades of research that tells us that if you show someone’s suicide, it leads to increased suicide. Still, there was a debate back and forth about whether the show was having a positive influence or negative influence. That’s where our research steps in.”

Mark Dredze, associate professor of computer science, who collaborated on an analysis of internet search activity relating to suicide after the Netflix debut last spring of 13 Reasons Why. The 13-episode series follows a teenager as he untangles the complex and intertwined relationships and events that led to the suicide of his friend and crush.

Overall, the researchers found between 900,000 and 1.5 million more searches relating to suicide than would have been expected if the show hadn’t been released. For example, searches for the term “teen suicide” soared 34 percent compared to expected search volume, while searches for “how to commit suicide” rose 26 percent.

Although more information is needed before a determination can be made about the correlation between the show and suicide rates, Dredze says this type of analysis of online behaviors could help fill in a gap where traditional public health research leaves off.

“If you wanted to look at the suicide rates in the U.S. in the wake of this show, it would take months, if not years, to collect that data,” he says. “One of the powerful aspects of web data is that we can get it right away, and that means we can do a paper on season one of 13 Reasons Why before they start producing season two.”