Investigating viewership of season 3 of "13 reasons why" and the mental wellness of adolescents: Partially randomized preference trial

Yalda T. Uhls*, Laurel Felt, Ellen Wartella, Andrew Sanders

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: A conflicting body of research suggests that additional investigation is needed to understand how globally watched television shows featuring social and mental health issues, such as 13 Reasons Why, might affect adolescents' mental wellness. Objective: This study aims to investigate adolescents' viewership of the third season of the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why (13RW-3) and their engagement with show-related content, paying special attention to mental health outcomes and conversational partners. Methods: A panel-based research platform operated by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago recruited 157 adolescents aged 13 to 17 years from its nationally representative pool of participants. Participants answered questions about how they discussed and learned about social and mental health issues portrayed in 13RW-3 (eg, masculine role pressure and sexual assault) and questions about mental wellness (eg, mental health self-efficacy and depression). After the participants completed the survey (T1), they were directed to either watch 13RW-3 as it aired for the first time (intervention group) or not watch 13RW-3 (control group). Approximately one month later (T2), all the participants were asked to complete the postsurvey. Additional survey questions about conversational partners, information seeking because of watching the show, and use of show-related content were included in the intervention postsurvey. Results: Our sample (N=157) was 52.2% (n=82) female and 54.8% (n=86) White, with a mean age of 14.99 (SD 1.4) years. At T2, viewers of 13RW-3 spoke about suicide significantly more frequently than nonviewers (P=.007). From T1 to T2, viewers increasingly discussed issues explored by 13RW-3 (P=.002), especially suicide, mental health, and bullying. Adolescent viewers were most likely to speak with friends, and parents were the second most commonly named. Two variables emerged as consistent moderators of conversational choices-having depressive symptoms and being impacted by sexual assault. There was no association between conversational frequency and information seeking around social and mental health issues, and neither mental health self-efficacy scores nor masculine role pressure scores significantly differed between viewers and nonviewers at T2. Conclusions: Viewing 13RW-3, a globally watched television show featuring social and mental health issues, led to adolescent conversations and information searches about topics explored by the show. Depressive symptoms and the impact of sexual assault moderated several relationships, guiding participants toward engaging with certain issues and seeking out specific conversational partners. As 13RW-3's stories drove conversations-and story-driven conversations can raise awareness, reduce stigma, shift attitudes, normalize certain behaviors, and strengthen supportive relationships-potential wellness implications for television shows featuring social and mental health issues are considerable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere25782
JournalJMIR Mental Health
Volume8
Issue number9
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Keywords

  • 13 reasons why
  • Adolescence
  • Conversation
  • Depression
  • Media
  • Mental health
  • Narrative
  • Sexual assault
  • Television

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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