Popular and well-intentioned policies of providing warnings about disturbing content may do more harm than good. The idea of trigger warnings started online and has migrated to classrooms and movies. Recent studies, however, show that content warns do not avoid negative reactions and actually may increase them. The pioneering study in 2018 found that trigger warnings correlated with greater anxiety about disturbing passages. The authors concluded that “[t]rigger warnings may inadvertently undermine some aspects of emotional resilience.”
Later studies reached the same conclusions. One important conclusion is the finding that trigger warnings tend to confirm the belief in trauma survivors that their trauma was central to their identity. Other research has shown that people who believe that trauma is central to, rather than only one aspect of their identity, suffer more severe symptoms of PTSD.
There may be other reasons to include a content warning for media. Parents need to know what their children are viewing, and teachers may want to be sensitive to their students’ trauma. But, as always, we need to balance our desire to be sensitive and virtuous people with the hard science about the damage that we may inadvertently be causing.