On content warnings

My site templates support content/trigger warnings. I took inspiration for this from Mastodon, as it’s one of the better features of that platform. It gives people the chance to opt out of reading content that might be objectionable to them, or which they don’t want to accidentally appear on-screen at a workplace or the like. Or for people who do want to read it, it gives them a chance to center themselves and prepare for what might be coming.

I do this because I have a history of trauma. Certain things, when seen without warning, have a tendency to hurt me badly. But being warned about the content allows me to prepare for it, and if I know what I’m getting into I know, from my own personal experience, that I can face it without having a panic attack.

Unfortunately, there have been several studies that “prove” that content warnings are ineffective; the most recent one of these is Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories. I have not read the study thanks to the paywall, but the abstract is very telling (emphasis mine):

Trigger warnings alert trauma survivors about potentially disturbing forthcoming content. However, empirical studies on trigger warnings suggest that they are functionally inert or cause small adverse side effects. We conducted a preregistered replication and extension of a previous experiment. Trauma survivors (N = 451) were randomly assigned to either receive or not to receive trigger warnings before reading passages from world literature. We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for participants who self-reported a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, or for participants who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. Regarding replication hypotheses, the evidence was either ambiguous or substantially favored the hypothesis that trigger warnings have no effect. In summary, we found that trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors.

This abstract strongly implies that participants were not allowed to opt out of reading a passage. It also strongly implies that the passages were hand-picked to be especially taxing to the participants based on their own personal trauma histories.

It also completely ignores that being in an academic study is a very different situation than reading stuff online, such as on a forum or social media, particularly reading content from friends and acquaintences. There is a power dynamic at play here. In a laboratory setting, peoples' behavior is totally different, especially when they’re being expected to comply with an order that they would normally completely object to.

I know, from my own personal experience, that being faced with un-warned writing about certain subjects — animal abuse, emotional abuse, and suicide in particular — I absolutely flash back to terrible moments in my life. But if I know what’s coming, I can prepare and stay focused and calm. This is not something that I have had tested in a laboratory setting, and I do not know how I would react in a laboratory setting.

Also, in a laboratory setting, it’s possible that the people who were being tested for trauma responses to things already knew they were being tested for trauma responses for things — the entire study served as a content warning. I would have to see this study’s protocol to see how they controlled for that.

All this is to say: tag your content, people.


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