'Trigger warnings' warning young people about offensive content don't actually help

Rob Waugh
Contributor
Trigger warnings are ‘not helpful’ for preventing distress, researchers claim

‘Trigger warnings’ used to warn sensitive young people about possibly offensive content have made headlines in recent years – but do they actually do anything?

New research suggests that the warnings actually have no effect at all, and could even harm people.

There had been very little research into the effects of the warnings, which are used at universities to ‘protect’ students from harmful content – but researchers tested how well they worked.

Researcher Mevagh Sanson of The University of Waikato said, ‘We, like many others, were hearing new stories week upon week about trigger warnings being asked for or introduced at universities around the world.

‘Our findings suggest that these warnings, though well intended, are not helpful.’

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Researchers showed 1,394 volunteers distressing content (in video and written form), with some of the volunteers seeing trigger warnings such as, ‘TRIGGER WARNING: The following video may contain graphic footage of a fatal car crash. You might find this content disturbing.’

The researchers found that people’s responses to the content was the same, whether or not they saw a warning.

In fact, trigger warnings may actually have harmful effects – and could worsen or maintain disorders such as PTSD, the researchers say.

Sanson said, ‘These results suggest a trigger warning is neither meaningfully helpful nor harmful.

‘Of course, that doesn’t mean trigger warnings are benign. We need to consider the idea that their repeated use encourages people to avoid negative material, and we already know that avoidance helps to maintain disorders such as PTSD.

‘Trigger warnings might also communicate to people that they’re fragile, and coax them to interpret ordinary emotional responses as extraordinary signals of danger.’

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