Trigger Warnings

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March 10, 2020
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Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings now appear in email subject lines, on social media posts and even in conversation.

Key Insight

Trigger warnings now appear in email subject lines, on social media posts and even in conversation. They’re a way of signaling that the information about to be conveyed may upset or aggravate certain readers, viewers, or listeners.

Why It Matters

Do trigger warnings protect vulnerable populations or coddle overly sensitive youth and encumber free speech? The longevity of the debate and growing empirical evidence suggest both positions are wrong: trigger warnings don’t mitigate trauma, but clearly serve a social function that has led to their propagation.

Examples

The controversy about trigger warnings has cooled since Slate declared 2013 “year of the trigger warning,” but signposting what a reader might encounter is no less common: Trigger warnings appear on Twitter threads and in blogs.

Reviewers include spoiler alerts when revealing pivotal details about content that their audience may not yet have consumed. On the new Disney+ streaming service, movies like “Lady and The Tramp” and “Dumbo” include warnings that the films may contain “outdated cultural depictions.”

The first trigger warnings appeared on feminist message boards during the ‘90s in posts discussing sexual assault. The practice of warning readers about what they might encounter spread to other online communities, but hit the mainstream when the warnings started to appear in syllabi on college campuses: A NPR survey of 800 professors in 2015 found that about half reported using a trigger warning before introducing potentially difficult material on a variety of subjects.

Harvard researchers designed an experiment last year to test whether trigger warnings can help trauma survivors engage with potentially distressing literature. The psychologists randomly split 451 survivors into one group that received trigger warnings before being exposed to the content, and one that didn’t. There was no evidence that trigger warnings reduced anxiety (even among those with diagnosed PTSD), and in fact there was “substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.” That study adds to a growing body of literature with similar conclusions.

What’s Next

Researchers will continue to investigate how trigger warnings function as a precautionary measure for potential trauma, and some pundits will continue to decry them as hypersensitive. But the practice of warning audiences about what they might encounter while reading or watching is unlikely to disappear: The signposts are a way to build a connection between the creator and consumer and to forge a community among individuals who use and expect certain types of warnings. So far, trigger warnings have widened existing divisions between people who value their usage and those who mock their usage.

The Impact

If we conceptualize the term broadly, perhaps we could imagine a way to bridge our fractured media landscape by enabling individuals to broach controversial subjects without excluding potentially sensitive groups from the conversation.

Watchlist

American Association of University Professors, Modern Language Association, National Coalition Against Censorship.