Contagiousness and closure

When 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix two years ago, mental health experts warned about how this could lead to an increase of copycat suicides.

I don’t think many are surprised to discover that there is now data that shows “overall suicide rate among 10 to 17-year-olds increased significantly in the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why.”

Here is the interesting thing…

A second study found that “viewers who stopped watching the second season exhibited greater suicide risk and less optimism about the future than those who continued to the end. However, unexpectedly, current students who watched the entire second season reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all. Moreover, those who watched the entire second season were also more likely to express interest in helping a suicidal person, especially compared to those who stopped watching.”

What’s happening here?

Well, couple things worth pointing out.

First, we still fear that suicide is a contagious meme. That deep down if we talk about suicide it will lead to more suicide. (We are still experiencing the cultural hangover of this from not talking about it the last 30 years.) So glamorizing suicide must mean it will lead to more suicide. Here’s the thing, just like the Momo Challenge hoax, the reason why these memes don’t simply disappear is because we cannot stop talking about them. Now that people are curious about what the big fuss is about, it drives more people to view the meme.

Second, it turns out that human beings are built to find closure. That we seek out to solve interesting problems. Once we start something, we want to finish it. We get a shot of dopamine and feel accomplished when we finish. So when someone tells us a story, we want to know what is going to happen next and how it is going to end. And when we start a show and like 13 Reasons Why, and don’t finish we begin to imagine what happens. That’s what makes people anxious.

[Contagiousness and closure is what makes social media so addicting. We are constantly checking our feed to see if the world broke while we were offline. It is also a design choice to have your Facebook feed scroll on forever. It keeps us on the hook. You can’t find closure. That is why if you do it for too long, you begin to feel like a rat stuck on a wheel.]

It’s worth pointing out that the most vulnerable populations for this show are 10 to 17 year olds. Parents and adults should be in the discussion about whether this is something they want their adolescent watching. If you do, I hope you will finish it.

In addition, as a culture we need to do a better job about which memes we choose to spread. It only took me three clicks to find the secondary study. Just three clicks that lead to more knowledge. More knowledge leads to better decisions. It’s easy to be seduced into reading the headline and amplifying our fear. Especially when that headline already resonates with our worldview.

Suicide remains to be a complicated endemic with no clear path forward. If you are feeling isolated, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.