THE BLOG

Are Trigger Warnings Just Another Trigger?

21/01/2016 11:47 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Trigger warnings seem to be a very popular addition to a huge amount of articles I've come across recently. I understand their importance:

They are designed to prevent unaware encountering of certain materials or subjects for the benefit of people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to such topics. Having these responses is called "being triggered"-Geek Feminism

I totally agree that they are a really useful safety device to help prevent people coming across difficult content that might be unhelpful to them, but it doesn't seem that they are being used in this way effectively.

I work on a heavily moderated website, where all content is checked by a member of staff before being published and is done so with a set of community boundaries in mind meaning posts may be censored slightly or edited to make sure the content is appropriate for the majority of our young people. We cater for 10-25 year olds, with the site being split in terms of age groups in places. It's a really wide audience so we take a general stance on what is 'ok' to post and due to the nature of our work, we are really careful to keep content appropriate. Other websites, such as beat use a similar set of content guidelines. The general rule is that content that is commonly considered to be triggering isn't posted, for example weight or nutritional intake details in regards to eating disorders or graphic self harm descriptions. So far, so good... perhaps?!

The problem comes when content such as that I've already described is published anyway, with the safety net of a trigger warning tagged on to it. I begin to wonder if it's helpful to be posting this kind of content at all, regardless of whether it has a trigger warning on it or not. Especially on sites like Instagram and Tumblr, these trigger warning tags can then act as a really handy search device to locate posts that contain triggering and potentially harmful content. It's really complicated as you could argue that if an individual wanted to see this content then they would find it regardless of it's tags. But I wonder if it's just making it more accessible which doesn't seem helpful for anyone.

Part of recovery from mental health problems is to understand, recognise and learn to manage your triggers. It's challenging, but it is possible. It can be a bit of a challenge when triggering content appears somewhere you're not expecting it to, for example on a recovery account or tagged as something you normally follow; but generally it's possible to screen out the unhelpful content.

It's a difficult argument. On the one hand I completely champion individuals' rights to be able to post the kind of content they want to; especially if it is beneficial to them in some way. Conversely I disagree with posting overtly triggering content that could be harmful to others; especially in terms of graphic descriptions of self harm/eating disordered content. Working with young people, I have seen first hand, how vulnerable children and young adults can be. It worries me that a young person could utilise trigger warning tags to gain ideas or instructions to enable them to engage in self destructive or harmful behaviour. I don't think there's a simple answer. Perhaps having unhelpful content a little more hidden could be a start, or maybe we all need to stop and think about the kind of content we are posting and the impact it could have on others who come across it.

As part of her undergraduate degree in Sociology, Kate is doing a research project on the use of social media in mental health recovery. The aim of the project is to explore individuals' perceptions of the uses of social media in recovery from mental health problems. She is hoping to collect as many responses from individuals who use and do not use social media who have experiences of mental health conditions. If you have a spare 15 minutes, click here to take part in her research questionnaire, she is especially interested to hear from males with mental health experiences.

Read Kate's full blog here