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In the News

Do trigger and content warnings actually work?

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

7th November 2023

New research suggests that rather than helping people to prepare for viewing material that may be traumatic, trigger and content warnings may actually increase anxiety.

If you have spent any time on social media, you will no doubt be familiar with trigger warnings (TW) and content warnings (CW). Typically, such warnings accompany posts that contain material that viewers may find disturbing or traumatic e.g. ‘TW: Eating Disorders’.

Trigger warnings originate from research into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder where a ‘trigger’ may cause an individual to re-live a disturbing event. Arguably, trigger warnings are therefore designed to give individuals the opportunity to avoid content that they may find disturbing, or to give them time to emotionally ‘prepare’ for the impact that such content might have on them.

However, despite the widespread use of such warnings in social media, critics argue that they may not actually be effective for several reasons.

A meta-analysis conducted by Bridgland, Jones, and Bellet (2023) compared the results of 12 studies about the effects of content warnings and reported several key findings which challenge their use.

Firstly, it was found that warnings do not increase avoidance of content that may be disturbing. The researchers suggested that this could be due to a ‘forbidden fruit’ effect, which occurs when we are told we should not do something, and it becomes exciting. This finding is further supported by research into Instagram’s ‘sensitive content’ feature which blurs potentially distressing images, where 80-85% of participants chose to uncover images, despite such warnings.

Furthermore, Bridgland et al found that content warnings increased the anxiety that participants experienced prior to viewing potentially disturbing content (this was referred to as ‘anticipatory anxiety’), in comparison to participants who were not given warnings.

It seems, therefore, that trigger warnings offer very little benefit as a mechanism for enabling individuals to protect their mental health and could actually lead to a worsening in the anxiety caused by disturbing content.

Suggested Activity:

Read more about the research mentioned in this blog below and consider the following questions:

  • If content and trigger warnings do not help, what else could we do to protect people from online content that may cause them upset?
  • Content and trigger warnings are a Westernised concept according to many, with other cultures not making use of them. Discuss reasons why this difference might exist, and consider whether this a valid criticism in a globalised world?

Victoria M. E. Bridgland, Payton J. Jones, Benjamin W. Bellet (2023) A Meta-Analysis of the Efficacy of Trigger Warnings, Content Warnings, and Content Notes. Clinical Psychological Science, Online First

Rosey Gardiner-Earl

Rosey has 15 years of experience teaching Psychology and has worked as both a Subject and Senior Leader in school and large sixth form setting. Rosey is also an experienced A level Psychology examiner.

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