From blogs to lecture halls – are trigger warnings a tool or a censorship?

While a professor of psychology at Point Park University, Todd Avellar sometimes used trigger warnings to alert undergraduate students to disruptive elements and give them a chance to work through complex emotions.

He is aware of the polarized opinions on the concept – criticisms that the warnings are too sensitive or amount to censorship – but in his opinion, it is worth providing students with a space to prepare for lectures on topics such as sexual violence.

“Some people might be able to see something and they say, that’s good,” Avellar said. “While for someone [else]it can be completely traumatic.

Avellar, who is also a clinical psychologist, said it was important for instructors to understand the implications of the lessons on students who have experienced trauma.

What makes some students feel safe may be perceived by others as limiting their freedom to speak.

This tension has followed trigger warnings since they moved from feminist blogs in the 2000s to wider use online and in other spaces like college classrooms. Proponents see them as a tool for viewers to decide whether they want to engage with potentially traumatic material. Opponents criticize them as a symptom of political correctness, or worse, a way for individuals to hide from real-world problems.

The research is also mixed, with some studies suggesting that trigger warnings may have minimal or even a potentially negative effect. Yet with a broader focus on mental health and trauma during the pandemic, they have become a common part of mainstream culture and continue to be a topic of controversy and conversation.

What is a trigger warning?

A trigger warning is a notice for people who live with conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to anxiety to let them know that something they might see or hear could trigger a physical and/or psychological reaction. Smells, sounds, sights, and even the seasons can be triggers, depending on the person.

When faced with psychological triggers, individuals may experience things such as panic, fear, sadness, and flashbacks.

Dr Anthony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents, said the center generally avoids the term “trigger” – which can unintentionally conjure up a violent image – and instead uses the term “trauma reminder”.

Mannarino said most people don’t fully understand the impact of trauma, even though millions of Americans experience it in one form or another.

For example, he points to the prevalence of opioid addiction in the Pittsburgh area and media coverage that may be reminiscent of trauma. People who have experienced racial trauma and discrimination may also recall these experiences when they hear about violence against black people, including the police killing of George Floyd.

When leading trainings for mental health professionals, Mannarino often tells the audience that he is about to hear mentions of things like sexual or domestic violence. He thinks it’s a way to allow people who have been personally affected to prepare.

“I’m not sure I really like the ‘trigger warning’ terminology, but I like the idea of ​​educating the audience a bit about what they’re going to hear about,” Mannarino said.

Non-consenting media

Like many teenagers, Samantha van Staden loved horror movies. But after her childhood best friend was sexually assaulted during her freshman year of college, she realized how pervasive sexual violence was in mainstream media.

“We only realized after she went through this and obviously didn’t want to be completely exposed to it, without warning at some point while we were watching TV,” van Staden said.

“I’m not sure I really like the ‘trigger warning’ terminology, but I like the idea of ​​educating the audience a bit about what they’re going to hear. ”

So when she came across Unconsenting Media in her early days in a Cambridge University Facebook group and learned that its founder would be graduating, she saw an opportunity to help fill an unmet need. The organization’s website has a list of movies and TV shows with a checklist for each to say if it contains on-screen rape, child abuse, incest, mentions of rape, sexual harassment and a brief description.

For the most part, van Staden said, the feedback the website has received has been positive, but she recalls receiving harsh criticism from conservative media outlets and their readers.

The goal is not to control media choices, she said, but to provide information that empowers people to manage their media experiences. “I often get emails…where people who use the website regularly say, ‘I use it all the time, it’s something I’m really grateful for,'” she said. declared.

Censorship or freedom?

The Pittsburgh group Inside Our Minds hosts self-help spaces and online discussions in which participants often offer an opinion before mentioning topics like suicide and self-harm. Alyssa Cypher, the organization’s founder, said the trigger warnings are part of the group’s commitment to self-reliance for the people they serve.

From Cypher’s perspective, individuals are able to express themselves, and trigger warnings give their peers the ability to opt out if they deem it necessary.

“Anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to hear this right now can either opt out, like mute, since we’re virtual,” Cypher explained. “Sometimes people just want a warning so they can prepare mentally.”

“Most empirical studies of trigger warnings indicate that they are either functionally inert or cause small, undesirable side effects.”

The rules for trigger warnings aren’t rigid, Cypher said. The group simply asks that they be used so that members can continue to interact with the space as they wish.

“If someone wants to talk about suicide, he has the right. But maybe someone lost someone recently or made their attempt recently, I can’t tell,” Cypher said. “I prefer to make sure everyone in my space is as neat as possible.”

Over the years, published psychological studies have not ruled in favor of trigger warnings. A 2019 Harvard study of 451 trauma survivor participants found that trigger warnings can do more harm than good.

“Most empirical studies of trigger warnings indicate that they are either functionally inert or cause small, undesirable side effects,” the study says. The authors wrote that they found evidence that trigger warnings could “reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity.”

A 2018 study found that trigger warnings could inadvertently lead to increased anxiety in response to upsetting material. Others suggested they might not hurt or help. A 2021 study, which focused on examining the impact of trigger warnings on the average student, reported that the use of trigger warnings did not negatively impact test scores. tests. Whether warnings were used or not, positive emotions decreased, while negative emotions increased in participants after watching a sexual assault video.

Trigger classroom warnings

A 2016 NPR study found that about half of 800 professors surveyed had incorporated trigger warnings into their programs. This has presented some disagreement in academia as to whether or not they belong in the class. The University of Chicago made headlines when it welcomed its class of 2020 with a letter stating that the campus does not believe in trigger warnings.

PublicSource contacted Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and Chatham to find out if they had formal policies on trigger warnings. Each shared that they did not and left it to the teachers’ discretion.

Avellar encourages professors to view trigger warnings as an opportunity to open discussions about how best to support students.

“If a student experiences a real trigger in the classroom, it should be taken seriously,” Avellar said. “This student may have suffered trauma in the past or is going through significant pain. I would encourage support for this student to be able to work through these issues, so they can re-engage with similar material in the future.

He said he doesn’t think the conversation should be about whether to use warnings. Instead, it should revolve around a crucial question: “How can we respond to the needs and problems that our students encounter?”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected] and you can follow her on Twitter @AtiyaWrites.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation helped fund PublicSource’s healthcare reports.

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Angela C. Hale