Netflix's controversial drama about teen suicide 13 Reasons Why is taking steps to avoid endangering young lives.

Anyone watching the show is now greeted by an opening intro in which the cast of young actors warn of the graphic content and issues ahead.

They flag that some of the content in the programme is distressing and point to online resources where viewers can find more information and support.

"The minute you start talking about it, it gets easier," says actress Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica.

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The explosive series came out of nowhere last year, with teens bingeing faster than word could spread about its confronting content.

The actors' video is a result of new research by America's Northwestern University, which explores the impact of viewing the series on teens and parents.

More than 5000 participants took part in the project, including teens and parents in New Zealand.

It found more than 40 per cent of Kiwi and Australian teens watched the series, in line with the global average. Of those, 43 per cent reported discussing the show and its issues with their parents, while 61 per cent reported talking about it with friends.

Most surprisingly, said lead researcher Dr Ellen Wartella, the series sparked a strong empathetic reaction in young viewers, with 67 per cent reporting that watching the series had motivated them to help those who have been bullied.

Forty-seven per cent of viewers had gone on to reach out to someone who had been bullied, while 45 per cent had apologised to someone for the way they had treated them.

"We really didn't expect that," said Wartella. "That they would reach out and apologise to someone that they hurt or reach out to someone who is having a difficult time."

One of the key findings of the report, funded by Netflix but conducted independently, is that both parents and teens want "more resources to help viewers process and talk about the tough topics depicted in the show".

It suggested viewers would benefit from hearing directly from the actors, outside of their roles on the show.

Netflix was criticised for the graphic depiction of suicide in 13 Reasons Why.
Netflix was criticised for the graphic depiction of suicide in 13 Reasons Why.

The series hit headlines for good and bad reasons last year as teens raced to consume the young adult series, based on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher.

The story is effectively a suicide note from 17-year-old Hannah, detailing all the reasons she decided to end her life. The series sparked global controversy and debate around its graphic depiction of suicide, as well as other confronting issues, such as rape and domestic violence.

It was a runaway success - but parents, teachers and mental health advocates condemned Netflix for not including proper warnings or information on support services.

The results of the research were presented at a panel in New York that featured experts in suicide prevention and teen activism.

Executive producer and head writer Brian Yorkey says he never expected the series to become as popular as it did.

"It was a surprise but we always knew there would be strong feelings around it," he says.

"We knew we'd made a show that was unflinching in its honesty and there would be divergent opinions about that. To us, the vibrancy and intensity of the conversation was a little bit eye opening but we always knew there was going to be conversation about it and it's part of what we'd hoped would happen."

Netflix vice-president Brian Wright won't go as far as to admit the company made a mistake but says they are now using the findings from Northwestern's research to ensure they provide better support going forward.

"I don't think that there were mistakes. Obviously there was controversy around the show and with something like this that tackles such difficult and controversial topics, you're not going to make everybody happy.

"This cannot feel like medicine, it has to feel authentic. It has to reflect back to young adults the world in which they are living right now. This is a world where depression is pervasive and bullying is real."

That conversation has been largely positive, according to Wartella, director for the centre on media and human development.

"It gave viewers an opportunity to seek out more information, which is helpful, and provided them with information, they learned things," she says.

"We found that parent-child communication about these tough topics increased. This became an object that they could focus on and they could talk about things they hadn't been talking about before."

A second season of 13 Reasons Why will debut on Netflix this year, continuing to follow the fallout of Hannah's suicide.
A second season of 13 Reasons Why will debut on Netflix this year, continuing to follow the fallout of Hannah's suicide.

One criticism the report didn't investigate was the theory that watching content about suicide could trigger suicidal thoughts in vulnerable people.

Last year, Sophia Graham of New Zealand's Mental Health Foundation told the Herald she had heard from several people who found the series distressing and triggering.

Researchers say they did not include questions about suicidal ideation as they could not ensure adequate support services to global respondents.

"If you are collecting data, such as suicidal ideation, and if you find somebody who says 'yes, I'm thinking about committing suicide after watching the show' we would be obligated to provide resources to help that person," says Wartella.

"The fact we were collecting data around the world, we could not ensure we could get resources to the people who we might identify like that… That's pretty standard."

Netflix has confirmed a second series will screen later this year, focusing on the continued fallout from Hannah's death and the sexual assault of both Hannah and Jessica.

Yorkey says Jessica's story will be central to the series as she moves from being a victim of sexual assault to become a survivor.

"We want the show to be about the way we treat girls and women in this culture and the way we raise young men," he said during a panel discussion with media in New York this week.

And though he doesn't know how viewers will react to the upcoming season, he says they will be more prepared to deal with it than last season.

"We knew that people would watch and there would be conversation. We didn't know how many people would watch, how much conversation there would be or how intense.

"We were a little bit reactive in season one and certainly season two, we're very much trying to reach out and be proactive so everyone knows what's coming."

A release date for the second series has not yet been announced.

Key findings:

• 43% of Kiwi teens and young adults watched 13 Reasons Why.
•73% of Kiwi teens and young adult viewers believe the series accurately portrayed issues facing young people.
•40% of Kiwi teen and young adults sought additional information on depression after watching the series.
•67% of Kiwi teens and young adults were motivated to help others who were bullied after watching the series.
•45% of Kiwi teen viewers reached out to apologise for how they treated someone after watching the series.

Where to get help:

• Lifeline - 0800 543 354

• Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

• Healthline - 0800 611 116

• Samaritans - 0800 726 666

• Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

• Mental Health Foundation - mentalhealth.org.nz.

• Youthline - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

• The Harbour - The Harbour.org.nz. For those affected by harmful sexual behaviour

• Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse - Survivor.org.nz

• Women's Refuge: 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843. Womensrefuge.org.nz

• Shine - 0508 744 633 / 2shine.org.nz. Free national helpline.

• Outline - 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE). This is a service for LGBTIQ+ Kiwis who need help or advice.

• 0800 WHATSUP 0800 9428 787 / whatsup.co.nz. Children's helpline.

• Kidsline - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18.