Can TV Shows Help Teens Overcome Bullying, Depression, and Other Mental Health Problems?

PICTURE: See Yalda T. Uhls After

Credit: UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers

Popular TV shows and movies can improve the mental health of teens and help them cope with bullying, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and depression when these issues are portrayed with empathy and appropriate resources are provided, a published report through UCLA Academics and Storytellers Center shows.

And the need is great. Recent research has shown that children between the ages of 11 and 17 are more likely than any other age group to report moderate to severe anxiety and depression, said Yalda Uhls, founder and CEO of the center and adjunct assistant professor. of psychology.

Even before the pandemic, teen suicide rates were increasing, along with reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, she noted. At the same time, almost half of young adults say they still feel a stigma attached to receiving mental health treatment.

The center has conducted several studies on the controversial Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”, a teen drama that first aired in 2017 and that has been acclaimed and condemned around the world for its graphic portrayals of suicide, sexual assault, domestic violence, bullying, homelessness and school shootings. Uhls and his team wanted to know how the program impacted the mental health of adolescents who watched it.

In a study of 157 children aged 13 to 17 from across the country, 68 watched Season 3 of “13 Reasons Why” while the rest did not. All participants completed a survey at the start of the study on mental health, depression, bullying, sexual assault and related topics and one at the end that asked them, among other questions, if they had researched information on these issues.

The group that watched the show also answered questions about whether and with whom they discussed the show and whether what they saw caused them to seek further information on the topics. discussed.

Almost all of the teens – 62 of 68 – who watched the show said they looked for information on mental health topics related to what they saw. A large majority of them also said they discussed the issues raised with other people – especially suicide, mental health and bullying.

“Our research found that when teens watch TV shows that describe mental health issues, they actually talk about it with their peers, parents and partners,” Uhls said. “Our results show that these kinds of stimulating and realistic stories inspire young people to talk about and learn more about mental health.”

The average age of the participants was 15 years; 52% were women and 48% were men. About 55% were white, 19% were Hispanic, 17% were black, and just over 6% were identified as multiracial.

The study, which is highlighted in the Center for Scholars and Storytellers report, has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and is expected to be published in August.

The center also commissioned a study from media research and analysis firm MarketCast that tracked more than 1.29 million Twitter mentions of “13 Reasons Why” over a total of three weeks to examine the conversation surrounding the show on social media.

Among the results: Social engagement was especially high when the show’s cast provided mental health resources, such as when Devin Druid, who plays one of the main characters, posted resources and shared an article in which he was discussing sexual assault. Viewers also used emotionally charged scene posts and behind-the-scenes content on social media to engage in conversations about difficult topics.

Additionally, the show’s producers have created a website featuring videos of the cast, crisis numbers, and links to resources to help viewers navigate the topics raised in various episodes.

The report recommends that, like the producers of “13 Reasons Why,” studios create and provide credible and engaging resources with accurate information to accompany TV shows and movies designed for teens that deal with mental health and related issues. Examples include toolkits developed by public health experts that are designed to help adolescents discuss these issues with their parents and friends.

Uhls said she hopes the centre’s new research will inspire the efforts of film and television executives to produce meaningful shows that improve the lives of viewers.

“Together, we can normalize discussions about mental health by bringing together academics and content creators to unleash the power of research-based storytelling,” she said. “This study provides much-needed evidence to advance the conversation about how a popular show can impact adolescent mental health and the lessons to be learned from it. Accurate information combined with compelling storytelling works well.”


The report’s co-authors are Jordan Levinson, a UCLA graduate student in psychology; Laurel Felt, senior member of the center; Elise Tsai, UCLA research assistant; and Ellen Wartella, professor of communication at Northwestern University.

Pivotal Ventures of Melinda French Gates and the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison funded the centre’s mental health initiative, of which this report is a part.

The center released a report earlier this year assessing the values ​​underscored by popular television programs with tweens in each decade from 1967 to 2017.

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