You’ve probably seen trigger warnings on posts online, or recall the announcement before some TV shows that “viewer discretion is advised.” Trigger warnings are also sometimes used in classrooms, and a recent study has re-ignited a debate about whether they are useful or counterproductive. Here’s what we know about trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings may not make material significantly easier to read
The recent study had people read a story, or watch a video, that featured something traumatic. Participants were college students and Amazon mTurk workers, and some of them got a trigger warning before the content and some did not. The researchers reported that the warnings were only “trivially helpful,” with people in both groups reporting similar feelings about what they had read.
Trigger warnings aren’t a substitute for therapy
Trigger warnings aren’t just about making material easier to read, though. Another purpose is to give people the opportunity to not read the thing they were warned about. (The recent study was geared toward understanding trigger warnings given in university classes, where you are often still expected to read the material anyway.) Shannon Palus notes at Slate that avoiding things you’re anxious about can make your anxiety worse, which would suggest that trigger warnings might do more harm than good.
Crucially, trigger warnings are not a substitute for therapy. Or they’re not meant to be, anyway. Mental health care is still difficult to access in our society, and as a student it may be especially hard to find a way to get help while protecting your privacy. Does that make trigger warnings especially important, or especially harmful? Unfortunately we don’t have enough information to say.
The science on trigger warnings is still incomplete
Everybody’s got an opinion on trigger warnings, but scientific tests about them are much harder to come by. The authors of the recent paper note that theirs is one of just two that study the warnings’ effects directly. One or two studies are never the final word on something so complex, and this study is limited in many ways.
For one thing, the authors note that the stories and movies they used may not have been traumatic enough for there to be a significant effect of the warnings. The stories involved were “A Dark-Brown Dog” by Stephen Crane, and “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. They’re pretty bad: Between the two stories, two children and one animal meet tragic deaths. But they aren’t necessarily nightmare fuel.
The studies didn’t include a very wide variety of people, just college students and mTurk workers. The researchers did ask people about their history with trauma, and found that most participants said they had experienced something significant. But they didn’t specifically recruit people with PTSD or other conditions like anxiety or depression. Nor did they test trigger warnings on sexual violence, one of the subjects people often cite as a topic where trigger warnings are needed.
They also didn’t give people any advice about what to do with the trigger warnings (for example, to employ certain coping mechanisms). The trigger warnings were also vague about what might be involved in the stories or clips; in short, there’s a lot of things the study didn’t cover—which is fine, of course; it’s just one study. But it would be premature to completely ditch the concept of trigger warnings based on this.
Warnings aren’t just for trauma, though
The name “trigger warning” comes from the concept of triggers in conditions like PTSD, where certain experiences can cause your body and brain to behave like the trauma is currently occurring.
But the term has already strayed pretty far from that specific situation. If a person without PTSD reads a story where an animal is abused, and is kinda bummed out by it (one of the scenarios from the recent study), that’s not exactly the same.
That said, content warnings pop up more often in everyday life, and sometimes they make a lot of sense. You can tell Twitter to hide “sensitive content” for you, for example. Some Facebook groups ask members to put content warnings on some types of posts. And that makes sense -- after all, the required reading for a class seems pretty different from a social media post that an algorithm may or may not choose to put in front of you when you’re scrolling past your friends’ cat pictures.
So this study doesn’t tell us for sure whether trigger warnings are a good thing or a bad thing, but it gives us some more information on the potential pros and cons for using them -- and it identifies some of the questions that other studies will need to figure out.