Northwestern survey looks to positive effects of ’13 Reasons Why’

A research survey commissioned by Netflix from Northwestern University found that the controversial 13 Reasons Why got teenagers talking about topics like mental health, assault, and bullying.

The results were shared by Netflix on Wednesday at a panel discussion with Northwestern’s Dr. Ellen Wartella, Dr. Christine Moutier (Chief Medical Officer, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), and series executive producer Brian Yorkey.

The survey results came from 5,000 viewers of varying age groups — teens, young adults, and parents — from the U.S., U.K., Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand. The report says that 70 percent of teens surveyed talked to their parents about the issues addressed in the series, and more than half apologized to a peer for not treating them well. 

The majority of teenagers surveyed agreed that 13 Reasons Why was an accurate depiction of high school and that kids their age talk and act like those portrayed in the show. Three-quarters found the show illuminating with regards to issues of mental health and depression.

A video released along with the survey’s results looks at two cases: A young YouTuber who found the courage to talk about being a rape survivor, and a student whose high school pioneered the positivity campaign “13 Reasons Why Not.”

13 Reasons Why was the subject of much criticism after its premiere in March of 2016 due to graphic depictions of sexual assault and suicide. Some experts saw the series as glorifying self-harm, and a study shared in July found a possible link between the series and an increase in suicidal thoughts. 

The Northwestern survey, while heartening, does not address the personal history of those surveyed, such as their own experiences with assault and depression or whether bullying or self-injury could be triggers. 

The report itself acknowledges that this survey “was collected with a general audience and our sample size of individuals who may be more at risk was relatively low.” It added that there are “still many questions that cannot be statistically analyzed due to the small sample size of comparison groups.”

Seventy percent of parents surveyed wished the show had provided more resources to continue the conversation (a bonus episode Beyond the Reasonswas the main offer, and many did not watch it). 

13 Reasons Why

Image: Beth Dubber/Netflix

“It’s certainly notable that young people are much more sophisticated in some ways than we think,” Moutier said in an email to Mashable. “Most of them understood the messages from S1 that media highlighted only as controversial […] These messages were provided via subtext and sometimes through showing the messy, imperfect fictional portrayal that could provoke a thoughtful sense of what COULD be.”

In a post on Netflix’s blog, Vice President of Original Series Brian Wright addressed these points specifically. The show already planned to add more content warnings, and now those will include cast intros that break character and get serious about the forthcoming topics. The show’s companion site will be stocked with additional resources to facilitate difficult conversations, and Season 2’s version of Beyond the Reasons will go even deeper than before.

“Depression/mental health can spiral out of control and feels messy and doesn’t have labels while it’s happening,” Dr. Moutier told Mashable. “Suicide culminates from a complicated interaction of deterioration in mental health, life and environmental stressors. If you have a hunch someone is struggling, go the extra mile and pursue them to connect. Most people are trying in their own awkward imperfect way. Let yourself move closer to others.”

13 Reasons Why Season 2 is due out later this year.

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