Trigger Warnings - What's the Point?

12/07/2016 12:35 | Updated 12 July 2016


'I've learnt everything I know about harming myself from social media, but I also know the value of these communities in decreasing isolation.'

Honest albeit conflicting words from one of my 17-year-old students.

Similarly, the paradox of a blasé headline and capped-up trigger warning highlights just how muddied the waters of provocative online content are.

The first time I became aware of the concept of triggering was in 2014.

I was watching a documentary called 70 Stone Man, and inevitably, the Twittersphere split fiercely into two camps: compassion vs disgust.

Playing Devil's Advocate to those preaching 'no sympathy', I argued that eating yourself into a bed-bound state is likely due to a mental health issue, not just greed, and believed the reaction would be different if the film had been documenting a 4st anorexic.

Someone replied with a 'little heads-up', telling me there was 'no need to mention triggering low weight details'.

My immediate reaction was defense, it felt like a pernickety reaction to a hypothetical point.

I clicked onto their profile and in the bio saw 'living with anorexia'. While unintentional, what I understood to be fair comment had clearly taunted her.

It wasn't until several months later when researching my Understanding Self-Harm workshop for SET [Self-Esteem Team] - the group I work with who go into schools to talk about mental health - that I experienced triggering content firsthand.

At the click of a button, thousands upon thousands of images, from surface scratches to hardcore photos I cannot unsee.

I have a long history of self-harm, though as a 90s kid, grew up in an internet-less world. At my most vulnerable, I wasn't exposed to pictures or language which could have been hazardous to me, and that no doubt would have spurred me on to inflict more damage.

I'm often asked 'Is social media to blame for our self-harm epidemic' - one in every five teens in the UK has self-harmed at least once, while the number of children admitted to hospital for self-inflicted injuries has risen 70% over the last decade - and I do feel there is an element of contagion.

The fact is, we are influenced by what we see, so much so that face-scan technology is now being trialled to analyse emotional attachment to adverts so marketing can be tailored to capitalise on human response. While biologically, our 10% conscious brain is dominated by its 90% subconscious, allowing information to seep in via the absence of critical thinking.

Do I think a happy, confident person would see a picture of a noose then suddenly want to take their own life? No. I do, however, believe people in a vulnerable mindset might be susceptible to triggering content because when someone is struggling, and in search of coping mechanisms, self-destruction doesn't seem that far removed from the pain they're already enduring.

Even recovered, triggering content isn't always comfortable to look at, and a warning tag will often deter me from looking if I'm not in the right headspace.

It's the 'turn around' message on the Hansel and Gretel path luring me back to harm.

Self-harm is a language I understand but cannot translate into English. I don't see horror. I lack the rationale to see sorrow. I actually feel envy. For me, it doesn't trigger sadness or what was going on in my life when I harmed, it triggers a habit, a muscle memory, a reminder of something I did without question. It's a hug and a punch at the same time.

It's the bite from the apple temptation.

As with other mental health issues, self-harm can be highly competitive, and when unwell, people are at risk of using the physicality of their illness as a voice. I've been called into a school by a teacher who said his Year 8 girls were using self-harm to 'identify' with each other. A school nurse told me about her fears of 'upping', where more extreme acts are done to show who's sickest. Another teacher said if her students witness others who seem outwardly more ill than they are, it's just another fail in their own eyes. That competitiveness with others, even with the self, can be fuelled by pictures or articles which divulge methods. Hence, social media is a disaster in creating that competitiveness.

Yet with the exponential growth of cyberspace - 1.7 billion Facebook users, 400 million Instagrammers, and 310 million Tweeters worldwide - along with our thirst to communicate online, controversial content cannot be controlled at the rate it's being published. Even if reported, it's already been seen and imprinted onto the retina.

Recently, I met with someone who works at Instagram and asked about their guidelines, questioning if they ever ban users who share posts which might be deemed triggering.

Unless users are glorifying this behaviour (like pro-anorexia pages) they are allowed to upload selfies of their harm or weight as the community team trust that people use the app like a journal, to talk in a space with others who understand and don't judge.

It's a catch-22, online communities can be a hub for support, yet also the very space negative behaviours breed and are normalised.

Censorship is unhelpful; deactivating someone's account who is using it to connect with people they can't necessarily relate to in real life seems potentially dangerous to consequently isolate them even further. I often see 'don't report, just block' in social media bios, people petrified of being robbed of their one outlet and the right to express themselves just because another person can't handle what they see.

Even if it was fruitful, it doesn't prevent the viewer from being exposed to triggering material in other aspects of life, for example, a film which sparks an emotion, a passer-by, a song lyric, a certain smell, sound or sight etc.

On the flip side, telling society to 'man up' is redundant, 'forget about how you feel' said no therapist ever. And to empathise isn't to mollycoddle, it's just basic humanity.

For me, the answer is nearly always education, as well as ongoing discussion to evolve with the world around us.

Teach users about their settings. Tumblr set a great example allowing people to customise what they see by blocking (blacklisting) topics, giving full control to the individual in choosing the wallpaper of their own life.

The power of prevention over cure is invaluable. When the average age for a child in the UK to get their first smartphone is 10-years-old, introduce social media lessons into primary schools. Talk about what to do if confronted with the #CutForBieber or #CutForZayn hashtag. Speak about they think 'thinspiration' means.

It's cumulative, we have a duty of care for each other, it's baffling to me how trigger warning critics wouldn't want to help make the world an easier place to navigate. A warning takes a nanosecond to write, if they prevent one person from distress, I celebrate the term being used on articles and social media. Perhaps Google and other search engines should also play a bigger role in what they allow to be indexed and available at our fingertips.

A warning isn't synonymous with creating 'Generation Snowflake', it's giving autonomy. An alcoholic can choose not to walk into a pub as they're signposted, a soldier with PTSD can choose to avoid a fireworks display if the explosions traumatise them with memories of war, someone influenced by online content deserves to choose what they see before clicking.

Equally, let's continue the mental health debate. We can do so without planting seeds by talking about the 'whys' not 'hows' of self-harm etc. Just as you would tell a five-year-old to dial 999 if they see a physical accident, they should be informed how to deal with a mental emergency. Mental health literacy won't make young people prone to harming themselves, it will teach them how to respond in a crisis.