Can TV Shows Help Teens Struggling with Depression and Other Mental Health Issues?

A University of California – Los Angeles Study Says “Yes, They Can”

When adults involved in the lives of teens talk about the relationship between television and mental health, their default starting position is often negative. This may derive from the fact that when most parents of teens were young, they heard their parents say things like “too much TV will rot your brain” and “you need to get out from in front of that screen and get outside.”

We know now that TV does not rot your brain. But we also know too much sedentary time has an adverse effect on physical and mental health. Which means that although too much TV will not literally rot your brain, too much TV leads to a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, may not be the healthiest or most productive way for teens to spend all their free time.

Most parents of teens – or teachers, counselors, coaches, and mentors – would also agree with that second classic parent sentence – you need to get out from in front of that screen and get outside – as it applies to all the screen-based media with which our teens now engage. We think our teens would be better off with less screen time and more outdoor time.

Recent reports highlighting the negative effect of some social media sites on teen mental health, such as the connection between Instagram and body image issues and teenage girls with depression or low self-esteem, brought these conversations back into the public forum. A former Facebook employee recently revealed internal documents to Congress, which caused an uproar in the media. And we published several articles about those connections. Here are two:

The Risks of Social Media to Adolescent Mental Health

Common Sense Media: Teen Social Media Use 2012-2018

We encourage you to read those two articles because they present evidence on the effect of social media on teens – some of which you may find surprising.

Los Angeles Teens React to Mental Health Issues in 13 Reasons Why

This article is about social media, television, and mental health: three important topics all in one. An article published by the University of California – Los Angeles in May led us to a report detailing the results of two studies conducted by Los Angeles-based researchers. The studies shed light on both the positive and negative effects of television programming on teen mental health.

The report – Seeking Support: Evaluating the Impact of 13 Reasons Why on Adolescent Mental Health – contains data from one study that examined Twitter data from one week after the release of each of the show’s three seasons, and another study that surveyed a group of Los Angeles area teens who either did or did not watch the show’s third season.

The goal of the studies was to gather detailed information about the relationship between teen mental health and television shows featuring mental health topics as central themes. Researchers highlighted the recent increases in adolescent suicide, teen depression, and teen anxiety. They expressed particular concern about the negative effect of the pandemic on teen mental health. Their primary goal was to discover whether shows like 13 Reasons Why support or degrade teen mental health.

Like the data we discuss in our articles, linked to above, the data in these recent studies might surprise you.

Let’s take a look at what they found.

If you’re not familiar with the show, read this explainer article.

First Study: Twitter Conversations and Mentions About Teen Mental Health

Here’s how study authors describe their first research effort:

A commissioned social listening study that examined the social conversation on Twitter (in 1,291,334 total mentions of key topics) one week after release for Seasons 1 through 3.”

Here are the key findings.

Study One: Twitter Conversation About 13 Reasons Why, Season 1

Note: Positive conversations were defined as those that praised the show for addressing taboo/stigmatized topics (93%). Negative conversations were defined as those that questioned whether the show represented topics accurately (7%).

  • Twitter content in the week following the release of Season 1:
    • 687,556 total mentions about topics related to teen mental health.
    • 93% of conversations around the following topics were positive. Topics included:
    • Twitter content in the week following the release of Season 2:
      • 497,794 total mentions about topics related to teen mental health.
      • 50% of conversations were negative
      • 35% of conversations were positive
    • Twitter content in the week following the release of Season 3:
      • 105,984 total mentions about topics related to teen mental health.
      • 52% positive
      • 32% negative

What jumps out to us about these results is the content of the conversations after Season 1. While critics and concerned adults panned the show and offered near-universal condemnation for what they describe as an irresponsible and careless treatment of teen suicide and adolescent mental health, the Twitter data tells a different story. In close to a quarter-million mentions, the vast majority were positive. And the Twitter content addresses topics about which we want our teens to engage in positive conversations: teen mental health, teen bullying, and teen suicide.

Another thing we’ll point out is that while the second season addressed accountability for the central incident in the first season, and the third season addressed difficult topics like sexual assault, bullying, and recovery, the first season generated the most positive conversations around core topics. It also generated more conversations around core topics, overall.

Now let’s take a look at the second study.

Second Study: A Survey on Teen Reaction to Season 3

Here’s how study authors describe their second research effort:

“An experimental study with 157 teens…[wherein]…approximately half of our participants watched Season 3. All participants completed a survey asking about their conversations in the previous 30 days and whether the show inspired them to seek out information about mental health.”

Here are the key findings.

Study Two: Teens React to 13 Reasons Why, Season 3

Of the teens who watched Season 3:

  • 88% had conversations about mental health topics. Of those:
    • 63% spoke to friend
    • 47% spoke to parents
    • 19% spoke to a sibling
    • 13% spoke to a partner
  • 92% looked for information on mental health topics. The top 3 topics:
    • Bullying
    • Mental health
    • Sexual assault

Additional findings related to Season 3:

  • 20% of teens who watched the third season also watched the documentary that explored the topics of the show, called “Beyond the Reasons”
  • 15% said they visited the resource site provided by Netflix, 13Reasonswhy.info, which now has a new url and name: https://www.wannatalkaboutit.com/
  • When actors from the show posted relevant threads or resources, teens engaged with them
  • PSA and show-related information generated more engagement on Instagram than Twitter
  • Those who knew a sexual assault victim looked for information on gender stereotypes more often than people who did not know a sexual assault victim
  • All male viewers who self-reported as victims of sexual assault looked for information on sexual assault.

We find three important things in this data. First, the level of engagement generated by actors and creators involved in the show is revealing: teens respond and react enthusiastically to social media posts by the artistic personalities involved in the show. Second, teens who knew a sexual assault victim researched related topics in response to the show. Third, every male respondent who self-identified as a sexual assault victim researcher related topics in response to the show.

All three points teach us the power that combining powerful, relevant content, social media, and creator engagement has on teen viewers.

How These Studies Help Parents and Teens

One way these studies instruct parents is by teaching them that the content teens consume – whether online or on TV – can serve as valuable jumping-off points for important conversations on mental health topics. It’s easy for a parent of a child of any age to glance at a show, quickly form a low opinion of it, and then share that opinion with their child. We suggest an alternative to that approach. Watch the show with them, identify topics you want to discuss, and them with you child or teen, using prompts based on the characters, plot, or action in the show.

To that point, the study researchers discuss evidence indicating narrative, fictional storylines – including those on topics considered relatively boring by teens – can change teen behavior more effectively than documentary-style stories filled with facts, figures, and expert opinions. What this means is that “accurate information combined with emotional storytelling is a powerful mechanism for shifting behavior and attitudes.”

That’s a powerful observation, especially for those concerned with educating teens about topics serious topics such as depression, anxiety, sexual assault, and bullying. These topics are critical, because, in some cases, accurate information can save lives.

To that end – educating teens and saving lives – the study authors created a list of three action items for the entertainment industry to consider when generating content for teens:

What the Entertainment Industry Can Do to Help Teens

  1. Support narrative-inspired conversations with adolescents
    1. When industry leaders, educators, and public health officials work together they can harness the potential of creative content to support the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of teens.
  2. Offer credible resources and accurate information alongside fictional stories
    1. The study results show content drives conversations among teens. Therefore, producers can create and promote auxiliary resources that “amplify and support” evidence-based communication and increase responsible information seeking habits.
    2. Auxiliary content can:
      1. Include conversation toolkits that help teens initiate topical conversations with friends, teachers, and parents
      2. Include creative means of access and distribution that go beyond a simple resource page.
    3. Produce and distribute creative, narrative-based public service announcements (PSAs) by show stars and creative personnel that engage teens and encourage participation. Meaning that in order to help teens, content creators can retrofit the old PSA model to synchronize with popular, contemporary methods of engagement
  3. Research content and use resources in content creation

We’ll allow Dr. Jessica Gold, MD, Director of Wellness at Washington University, to expand on that third point:

“In developing show specific resource pages and character focused videos that the cast can then share on social media, expert information can be curated to help support the fan’s needs. This study concludes…viewers are very likely to use it.”

We’ll close by reiterating a point we made above. As parents, teachers, counselors, and mentors, we can leverage the media our teens and children consume to their advantage. We can avoid automatically discounting a show, a book, or something as simple as a meme as irrelevant and unhelpful. Instead, we can take the time to explore what draws our children and teens to that content. Then – following their lead – we can guide conversations to the land of data, evidence, and fact-based information on topics immediately relevant to their lives.

In this case, the studies we discuss show the series 13 Reasons Why served as a valuable entry point for teens eager to learn about mental health issues – think depression, anxiety, addiction – and caused them to research and talk about difficult topics such as sexual assault, bullying, and suicide.

We encourage parents to evaluate all the media their teens and children consume. We remind ourselves – as well as encourage parents – to be open-minded and creative in using modern media content as a point of connection rather than a point of conflict or contention.