In 2016, the University of Chicago sent the following message to its freshmen:
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."
As you can imagine, it sparked intense controversy. Some were in support, claiming this allows freedom in learning, while others had concerns.
Born in the late 1990s, trigger warnings were first used to inform users of potentially distressing graphic content on digital feminist platforms. Since then, they have become so prevalent that about half of educators in a 2015 study reported including them in the classroom. They ensure viewers are aware of the content they are about to consume to increase accessibility of content, as suddenly being exposed to triggers can worsen PTSD side effects like flashbacks, thought spirals, and nightmares.
However, experts now argue they have adverse effects and can worsen trauma, even going as far as to suggest trigger warnings can be more detrimental than the actual content. Are trigger warnings a simple act of courtesy, or are they inadvertently doing more harm to victims?
A False Sense Of Security
The central argument of those pro-trigger warnings is that they are essential to creating inclusive environments. Many turn to the internet, in particular, as an escape from reality, and the inclusion of trigger warnings allows this to be possible.
Meanwhile, others argue that exposure is necessary for healing from trauma, and that trigger warnings promote the idea that one can spend their lives in a bubble, avoiding anything potentially harmful, when it's inevitable that those with trauma will encounter uncomfortable situations. Furthermore, they isolate those with trauma, forcefully reminding them that they are "different," making them feel delicate or fragile.
"Critics have suggested the trigger warnings may create an unrealistic bubble, free from negative thoughts, which would not prepare students for life beyond academia.”
-Payton Jones, Harvard researcher
Trigger Warnings Affect Everyone
While trigger warnings are typically targeted towards people with trauma, they are consumed by everyone. A study investigated their impact on non-traumatized individuals, finding that higher anxiety was reported by those who received cautions prior to reading distressing content, compared to those who didn't. This shows that those without trauma can also be negatively affected by trigger warnings, and they must be considered.
Moreover, trigger warnings are often seen as a way to avoid uncomfortable topics that must be addressed. Including them in the classroom can cause students to skip content because it contradicts with their opinions, causing fixed mindsets, or because they are scared of how they may potentially react. Most people will eventually be exposed to such content, and by overcoming anxiety in a safe environment like a classroom, it can allow people to be better prepared in future scenarios.
Trigger Warnings Avoid the Real Problem
Instead of putting a warning on anything potentially triggering, we need increased accessibility to and quality of mental-health resources, especially on school campuses, and to fight the stigmas around seeking help. If the University of Chicago worked towards this, it could have created a safe environment while removing trigger warnings, versus just sending out an ignorant, condescending letter.
So, What's the Solution?
While trigger warnings are directed towards those with trauma, content warnings are for everyone. They inform users of content that may be upsetting, like blood or jump scares, and they may also be used when something can be triggering but is simply mentioned, not detailed.
Content notes have a similar intention to trigger warnings but don't provoke the same fear, making them more successful. They can be very helpful, such as ensuring someone with epilepsy knows the following video has flashing lights, without isolating this person for their condition.
Trigger warnings have been deemed an act of respect to those with trauma, but this may not actually be the case. Instead, they often cause more problems that translate into real life by causing vulnerability to those with trauma and instilling fear in everyone.
Content notes are a more effective alternative as they are more general and inclusive, but they can only be truly successful with increased accessibility to and quality of mental health resources. By addressing the root causes and effects of PTSD, we can learn to fight the stigma around embracing and celebrating each other's mental health accomplishments.