The controversy over trigger warnings

By Bianca Alarcon

Have you ever seen on social media like Tiktok, Snapchat or Instagram a “tw” or “cw” without knowing what they mean? Have you ever felt disturbed by certain content on the media? So, now you may be asking yourself, what is a trigger or content warning? 

Well, a trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of a piece of writing, video, moovie, ect, cautioning people that it’s content that may be disturbing or upsetting. These trigger warnings work like “alerts”, letting people know that the material they are about to read/see might disturb them. These triggers come in many shapes and sizes; they may be a physical location on your body or the anniversary of a traumatic event. Also, a person could be triggered by stress or anxiety. On social media, this is present by writing “cw” or “tw” followed by the name of the trigger without censoring it.

For people who’ve experienced trauma, being triggered is very real and concerning. It may not be someone’s intention, but sometimes using a term or mentioning something may be very emotional or sensitive for others, adding to the stigma surrounding mental health.

Using trigger warnings is very beneficial as they help people who have experienced trauma to avoid “fight-or-flight” reactions that may occur when they are exposed to words or images that remind them of their trauma. This can also help people who are recovering from mental illnesses, suicidal tendencies and eating disorders. I believe they are a good way to help people cope with mental injuries such as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

On the other, recent studies contradict this. They state that trigger warnings have little or no benefit in decreasing the impact of this disturbing content and that in some cases, trigger warnings may make things worse. “Trigger warnings just don’t help” said Payton Jones, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Harvard. He explained that we need to give more attention to mental health care instead of just using cautions before giving content about it. 

This study consisted of having a few hundred participants reading several passages. Half of the participants received no trigger warning however, the other half did receive a trigger warning. The results suggested that trigger warnings could actually generate anxiety making them counterproductive. But, the evidence on whether people actually avoid content based on trigger warnings is mixed. 

As Richard McNally, a Harvard psychologist said “Rather than issuing trigger warnings we should facilitate the access to effective and proven treatments for P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other mental health problems”. These traumatic events leave deep psychological scars that can appear again many years later as renewed emotional pain or unwanted memories. If you feel you need a trigger warning before watching or reading certain content, you may be needing better medical care. 

Therefore, in my opinion, trigger warnigs are indeed very useful as they help people who have experienced trauma to avoid unwanted reactions that may occur when they are exposed to certain content. Yet, I also believe that we need to give more attention to mental health issues instead of just using trigger warinings.

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