Trigger warnings are statements that warn about upcoming disturbing content that could include potential trauma triggers. These warnings are somewhat controversial, particularly in the education field. Some people feel that they are unnecessary and cause more harm than they prevent, while others believe they are useful for helping people avoid undesirable or harmful content.
Both the term and concept of trigger warnings originated on feminist websites and blogs where people could discuss violence against women. The warnings would come before the sharing of upsetting information.
Trigger warnings then spread to other websites and institutions like schools and workplaces. While most people recognize that anything could be a trigger, communities tend to limit trigger warnings to specific material, like suicide, eating disorders, or self-harm.
Advocates for trigger warnings argue that they give people the ability to prepare for a potential trigger or close the page before they see the content. This helps prevent unexpected encounters with triggering content. Some educators believe that trigger warnings give students greater autonomy over their learning while affirming that the teacher cares about their mental health.
Those who disagree with trigger warnings believe that the warnings can reinforce avoidance behaviors, which can male symptoms of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) last longers.
These individuals suggest that people with triggers should manage them with counseling to truly overcome their conditions, rather than avoiding what prompts episodes. Some educators worry that trigger warnings could lead to censoring topics and promote anti-intellectual lessons. They argue this would become particularly clear when attempting to discuss sex, race, class, politics, and other controversial topics.
One of the potential downsides of trigger warnings is that they make triggering content much easier to find. Some people find it cathartic to discuss their experiences or post photos of self-harm scars or injuries from abuse. Many will include a trigger warning to protect others. However, some people may intentionally seek out triggering material, which could push them toward dangerous behaviors or negative thoughts.
Effectiveness in Students
While trigger warnings have increased in relevancy in recent years, studies into their effectiveness are small in size and few in number. A 2021 study of 355 undergraduate students found that 96% of students chose to read a passage describing sexual and physical assault, despite trigger warnings. Of those, people with triggering traumas did not report greater distress, though people with PTSD did. Neither group had long-term effects. This suggests that trigger warnings could help specific types of people, though most people do not avoid triggering material.
One of the main arguments against trigger warnings is that they promote avoidance behaviors or lower resilience to triggering materials and situations. Studies in controlled research environments showed that these claims are largely without merit.
Across multiple experiments, the effects of trigger warnings on lower resilience, feelings of avoidance, and similar outcomes were trivial.
Some experts believe that trigger warnings may have the opposite of their desired effect, causing a person’s anxiety to increase due to the expectation of an incoming trigger. Researchers tend to disagree on whether trigger warnings cause temporary increases in anxiety in people without traumatic experiences. Trigger warnings did not appear to increase anxiety in people who self-reported PTSD or who qualified for PTSD.
While trigger warnings exist largely to assist people with histories of trauma, not everyone appreciates the warnings. Some advocates for mental health groups argue that trigger warnings feel like “coddling” or encourage a victim mentality. Others worry that the prevalence of trigger warnings encourages their misuse, which could eventually erode their purpose.
Trigger warnings exist to warn people with trauma about potentially triggering content. However, as they become more prominent, a greater number of people use them poorly or improperly. One example of this is describing the triggering event in the warning. This alone can be a trigger. Experts advise using general terms, rather than more specific ones. For example, say that content contains “hate speech” or “slurs,” rather than sharing the specific words in a warning before a discussion of discrimination.
Because of the controversies surrounding trigger warnings, some people opt for alternatives. Educators may find it helpful to ease into disturbing topics by explaining the context first, verbally describing the content, and then introducing images as necessary. In other fields, providing written descriptions may be preferable to verbal recollections or images. Many industries choose to stick with general content warnings rather than the typically more specific trigger warnings.