Opinion: Content warnings help students deal with triggering content

Photo by Mackenzie Hudson

At the beginning of the Netflix original show “The Politician,” a black screen with text takes up the first few seconds. “The Politician is a comedy about moxie, ambition and getting what you want at all costs,” it reads. “But for those who struggle with their mental health, some elements may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.” 

This note is what is commonly known as a trigger or content warning. Trigger warnings can be simply explained as descriptive warnings for a certain piece of media that may induce an emotionally distressful response. 

To some, this might seem like an irrelevant notice, or even a spoiler in some cases. However, these warnings are geared towards those who may have a trigger linked to a traumatic memory or experience. According to WebMD, triggers, sometimes called trauma or PTSD triggers, can bring back strong memories, causing panic attacks, intrusive thoughts or even suicidal thoughts. 

[Photo of a content warning presented before a documentary]
Photo by Mackenzie Hudson | The Arbiter

I have seen them most commonly on movies or television shows, but they are also used across social media sites. Trigger warnings are used to inform an audience of certain sensitive and/or graphic content that a piece of media may contain. A number of public universities, as well as individual professors, have begun to use trigger warnings in their classes.

As helpful as trigger warnings can be for those who suffer from PTSD, many people have pushed back against their use. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book “Coddling of the American Mind” claims that trigger warnings are a type of overprotection, failing students in learning how to cope with uncomfortable situations. 

But the fact is that these trigger warnings are not used to warn students, or anyone who needs them, about uncomfortable situations. Trigger warnings exist to minimize the harsh effects of PTSD or other mental disorders that can cause someone distress when consuming certain content. This is not about coddling students, but about protecting individuals who can be negatively affected by certain topics. 

PTSD affects 3.5% of the American population, and according to the American Psychiatric Association, it is a common condition.

Though I do not have any diagnosed psychiatric disorders, I have found that trigger warnings help me deal with media that would otherwise cause me distress. Recently, I was required to watch a film called “Miss Representation” for a class. 

In the description that my professor gave of the film, he included a warning: “Content note: ‘Miss Representation’ examines representations of women in media and deals with some mature themes including gender stereotypes, eating disorders and sexual assault. It is a widely acclaimed film with many expert interviews and offers many insights regarding the modern media landscape.”

As someone who has struggled with body dysmorphia and stereotypes, I was thankful to be made aware of these themes throughout the film before watching. I was able to identify issues of ideal weight and body type as they came up without being surprised by them. 

Given this warning, I could allow myself to prepare for the content of this film that would otherwise upset me. I knew it was coming, so when these topics did appear in the film, I was not bombarded by anxiety or intrusive thoughts. 

In a contrary example, recently I was watching “Glee” with my roommate, and in this certain episode, a character struggles with the fact that he’s gaining weight while his boyfriend is in the best shape of his life. 

What could have been a message of “don’t body shame” or “gaining weight is a natural response to stress” turned into a message of “you need to be constantly worried about what you look like so others do not judge you.” When a type of media releases this message to someone who has struggled with issues of weight their whole life, it hurts. 

I was left the rest of the night concerned by the fact that I am not the ideal weight of my age and height demographic, and as it happened in the show, I am also being judged by those around me. 

However, when watching something for entertainment purposes without a trigger warning, I was met with a number of uncomfortable, intrusive thoughts. When I was presented with a content warning, I was able to prepare myself for the content that would have, without it, triggered me and made me needlessly upset.

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