The Contagion Effect Part 1:
What is the impact of news coverage on suicidal behaviors?

Netflix’s recent decision to remove the controversial scene of a student committing suicide in its series, 13 Reasons Why, came nearly two years after mental health care professionals first approached the company raising concerns about what is called the “contagion effect.”  

In other words, the potential for an increase in teen suicide, inspired by the show.

The idea of the contagion effect is not new, and is well chronicled by the National Academies Press in a 2013 workshop summary.

Celebrity Suicides and Entertainment Media

Although experts say that it is difficult to prove that news coverage or entertainment media caused a person to commit suicide, studies do show correlation. 

Consider the concerning trends related to several high-profile celebrity suicides.

For example, after the death of Robin Williams in 2014, there was an almost 10 percent increase in deaths by suicide. Additionally, after the suicides of Soundgarden’s lead singer Chris Cornell and subsequent suicide of his friend, the lead singer from Linkin Park, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) received a 14 percent increase in calls.

Not surprisingly, several studies have been conducted regarding the impact of 13 Reasons Why on teen suicide.  While the findings varied, one report, published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, found a 28.9 percent increase in suicide rates in young males the month after the show first aired.  Over the next nine months, the researchers found that there were 200 more suicides than expected.

The Contagion Effect Part 2: 
What can we learn from social media and the Internet?

Research suggests that Internet searches mirror real world suicide rates.   A research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine found there were one million (19 percent) more Internet searches about suicide after 13 Reasons Why aired. Searches included “how to commit suicide” (26 percent), “how to kill yourself” (9 percent), and “commit suicide” (18 percent).  Some of the increased searches were for seeking help—including “suicide hotlines” (12 percent) and “suicide prevention” (23 percent). In fact, the University of Manchester’s National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health found that  25 percent of youth who died by suicide conducted a suicide-related Internet search shortly before their deaths.

In addition to the increased number of Internet searches, the research firm Fizziology found that in its first week of airing, 13 Reasons became the most tweeted about series in Netflix history with more than 3.5 million tweets.  The show also generated a variety of social memes, including ones that mocked the character and made light of the experiences that led to her suicide.  For students in crisis, the added exposure to negative social media is another difficult input to process. 

Implications for Schools and Campuses

Increased Internet searches and social media engagement aren’t surprising results, considering the popularity of the series with teens.  In fact a study by the Pew Research Center, found that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone and 45 percent say they are online ‘almost constantly.’   

According to research published in the journals Crisis and The American Journal of Public Health, real-time monitoring of online behavior can be a viable tool for assessing suicide risk factors on a large scale. This research also concludes that social media provides a channel that may allow others to intervene following an expression of suicidal thoughts online.

So, what does all of this mean for schools and campuses charged with preventing youth suicide and keeping their students safe?

Recognizing the Warning Signs

In response to the show, The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) provided guidance for educators in how to engage in supportive conversations with students and provide resources to those in need.  They encourage making parents, teachers, and students aware of suicide risk warning signs, taking warning signs seriously, and establish a confidential reporting mechanism for students.

Recognizing that those warning signs may be displayed on students’ social channels, one challenge is the sheer amount of data school counselors would have to search through to identify concerning trends with their students.  The 3.5 million tweets for 13 Reasons Why seems manageable in the context of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data added to the web each day.

AI Technologies and Assessing Risk

AI-driven Radiance provides two important tools in helping keep campuses safe and predict and prevent student suicide.

Radiance’s Open Source Intelligence (OS-INT) scours all open source data across the entire Internet, looking for behavioral affinities related to suicide and other threats to students. For suicide ideation alone, OS-INT performs more than 7,000 searches of publicly available web data, and returns prioritized results in five minutes.  A manual search on a traditional web engine would take more than three weeks for one person to complete.

OS-INT is further amplified with Radiance’s Human Intelligence (HUM-INT), which is powered by the See Something Say Something (S4) app. This app provides the confidential mechanism recommended by NASP.

Eight out of ten people considering suicide give some sign of their intentions, and the S4 app allows students to confidentially share concerns about their classmates in real time, providing school administrators with early insights to support those in need.

To learn more about Lumina’s Radiance School Offer visit: https://luminaanalytics.com/radiance/

To learn more about the National Suicide Prevention hotline visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/