Netflix recently announced they have bowed to pressure from complainants arguing that their show 13 Reasons Why’s graphic portrayal of a youth suicide was insensitive. Netflix have stated that they plan to edit the suicide scene so that it occurs largely off camera. The declaration comes just weeks after Netflix announced that it would cut smoking scenes from all shows rated for teens or younger. These two moves seem designed to portray Netflix as concerned about media effects on youth health. But, by engaging in self-censorship, is Netflix really helping kids, or weakening artistic freedoms?
Despite the controversy over 13 Reasons Why, good data has never established that the show is a causal factor in youth suicides. A recent meta-analysis I conducted found no evidence to link suicide-themed shows to actual suicides. Other studies of 13 Reasons Why have concluded that the show might actually reduce suicide risk for some viewers.
However, bad news tends to travel faster than good. This year, a pair of widely publicized studies claimed to link the show to an increase in teen suicides. One of these did no such thing. If 13 Reasons Why caused suicide among viewers, we’d expect suicides to increase among teen girls and young adult women: the demographic most similar to that of the show’s protagonist. But no effects were found for young adults, and suicides among teen girls actually decreased for one month after the show’s release. Only suicides among teen boys increased and only some months after the show’s debut. Suicides among teen boys were already increasing before the show was released, which suggests that the show’s timing coincided with a trend, not that it was a causal agent of that trend. The suicides of several male celebrities—including Aaron Hernandez, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington of Linkin Park—at around the same time are more likely to have influenced the male suicides than the female-focused 13 Reasons Why. Indeed, many people who read this study were unimpressed.
A second study appeared to show clearer correlations, but didn’t control for seasonal patterns in suicide. April (when the first season was released) tends to be a high suicide month, and suicides have been increasing across age groups for several years. Thus, a peak in April 2017 was to be expected. This doesn’t mean 13 Reasons Why caused it.
Curiously, these two studies use the same Centers for Disease Control dataset. By running the data in different ways, they get different results. This is concerning. I have asked both groups for the data files used to calculate their results. Neither has complied. This means we have to take their word for it that their analyses are sound. Major decisions about artistic integrity should not be based on non-transparent science.
Concerns about smoking follow a similar pattern. This year, Patrick Markey at Villanova University, Rune Nielsen at IT University Copenhagen and I ran a meta-analysis of all studies examining the effects of film smoking on teen smoking. Overall, the evidence was underwhelming. Watching film smoking is associated with about 0.5% of the variance in teen smoking. If all we knew about a group of teens was the movies they watched and we wanted to predict who would become a smoker, our guess would be little better than a coin toss. But this hasn’t stopped advocates from making absurd claims. Even the Centers for Disease Control claim that giving an R-rating to movies depicting smoking would save one million lives. This extreme and data-starved claim is an embarrassment to our nation’s primary health organization. There’s no evidence, whatsoever, that this number comes from anywhere other than creative extrapolation and pure imagination.
In both these cases, the evidence of a causal connection is dubious at best. Even some critics of 13 Reasons Why admit that those two suicide studies are inconclusive. But poor quality social science has remarkable power to shape advocacy narratives—partly through something I call death by press release, which occurs when a university press release misrepresents the strength of a study’s data. That’s clearly the case for the first correlational study on 13 Reasons Why. News media have their own biases, often breathlessly reporting clickbaity claims. They frequently fail to adequately fact-check, seek divergent expert opinions, report on contrary evidence or acknowledge when alarming studies are later debunked—as they often are.
Even scholars and mental health advocates continue to mistake correlation for causation. We counsel our psychology students that correlation does not equal causation in their first introductory classes. Yet we drop this maxim whenever convenient to our own moral agendas.
The brouhaha over 13 Reasons Why will probably soon appear as silly as similar concerns about Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest in the 1980s do today. But Netflix caved to the pressure and, in doing so, have added to the mythology that humans are easily programmable robots, who unconsciously mimic what we see in the media.
The foolish reediting of 13 Reasons Why has, predictably, done little to assuage Netflix’s critics. Some have argued that the editing is too little too late, claiming that suicide contagion through fictional media is well documented—which it is not. Moral entrepreneurs are rarely satisfied by partial success. Some have now shifted to implying that the whole series should be banned. Moral outrage is never sated. There was nothing Netflix could have done to stop the extreme claims—based on ignorance and righteous indignation—once they got started. All Netflix has managed to do is appear weak.
Reedits of edgy material in the face of moral pressure seldom seem wise in hindsight. I was reminded of the infamous Han shot first episode from Star Wars: A New Hope. In the original, Han Solo shoots the bounty hunter Greedo before Greedo is able to haul him in. George Lucas clumsily reedited the scene to make it appear as if Greedo shoots first (missing Solo from about three feet away). Lucas explained: “when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first]—you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.” Setting aside the nonsensical idea of “mythological reality,” this implies that media impacts society in predictable ways, despite the lack of evidence to support that narrative.
The reediting of the 13 Reasons Why scene admittedly doesn’t change a character’s entire moral arc the way Han shoots first did. But it sets a similar precedent of industry weakness in the face of moral pressure that may cause real harm to freedom of speech.
Netflix has lost the opportunity to stand up for artistic expression—even though 13 Reasons Why may actually have helped some kids. Art should never be sanitized, rendered morally unambiguous or cleansed. It should push boundaries, cause us to confront our demons, and open up difficult conversations—even those conversations moral entrepreneurs don’t want us to have. Moral entrepreneurs are bullies—giving them what they want only emboldens them. When a behemoth like Netflix caves to their demands, it weakens the ability of artists everywhere to tackle topics of which society may disapprove.
Worse still, Netflix has contributed to continued misunderstandings of the phenomena of suicide and smoking, by feeding urban legends about the viewer as a tabula rasa, prone to mimic what she sees in the media. Tellingly, the debate around 13 Reasons Why neglects to mention that—according to the same CDC data used in the studies condemning the show—both overall rates and yearly increases in suicide are much higher among middle-aged adults than among teens. Among the enduring myths of suicide is that teens are particularly susceptible and that distal factors such as fictional media or music are causal factors. Similarly, misinformation distracts us from the real causes of teen smoking—smokers are often influenced by family members who smoke.
This is the cost of blind moral entrepreneurship. By reaching for low-hanging fruit, moral advocacy agendas impede progress on important, but less clickbaity, topics such as poverty, joblessness, overprescription of opioids, dysfunction in families and lack of mental health treatments. Netflix’s decision is a loss for artistic integrity and free speech and it also discourages reasoned, nuanced arguments which could help prevent negative life outcomes. It is a loss for teens. It is a win only for those who loudly proclaim their moral agendas and force the rest of us to live by them.