There are trigger warnings (TW) and content warnings (CW) almost everywhere. More and more of our online media comes with these disclaimers, but there is no real rule-book on how to use them. They are subjective, they are optional, and they can be notoriously difficult to navigate. Despite this, they can offer a significant degree of comfort and safety to those who benefit from them. This article is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation, and should be seen as a starting point, not a comprehensive and definite answer.
Triggering or offensive?
Often, there seems to be a misunderstanding or a disconnect between the ideas of something being triggering or something being offensive. Both can be rooted in discrimination. If a piece of content is, for example, blatantly homophobic, that can be both offensive and triggering to an individual who has been persecuted or discriminated against due to their sexuality. Conversely, someone who strongly supports LGBTQ+ equality (as they should) may find that same content offensive but not necessarily triggering.
The key difference between the two is usually accepted to be the involvement of past trauma or traumatic experience. The definition of ‘triggering’ is ‘causing someone emotional distress, typically as a result of arousing feelings or memories associated with a particular traumatic experience’. Whereas something ‘offensive’ more broadly means anything which ’causes someone to feel resentful, upset, or annoyed’.
The two can be experienced together or separately. They are not the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. Being emotionally triggered by content can cause mental distress and / or physiological symptoms, often as would be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that are not symptomatic of offence alone.
Why use a trigger or content warning?
After an individual has experienced trauma – for example, from an individual assault or from years of racial abuse or micro-aggressions – it can be difficult to view content which brings back those feelings. It doesn’t make an individual weak, it is related to a trauma response which is outside of their control.
By clearly flagging content as being potentially triggering, it gives individuals back their control of the situation. You are providing your audience with the opportunity to decide to continue watching, reading or listening, or whether they might be better placed to avoid such content at that time. It is all about autonomy and control, and not surprising anyone with traumatic content that they may not be expecting.
Something which one person may deem to be innocuous, might be distressing to someone else. It is not about shaming anyone, diluting or censoring content, or belittling causes. It is about giving everyone fair access and understanding that you do not know who will come across your content when it is put online.
It is important to remember that all trauma is relative. What may leave someone in a state of distress may not impact others so heavily. No one trauma is more or less important than another. The psychological impact remains the same, only perhaps to varying degrees of clinical severity.
What requires a content or trigger warning?
As stated above, there are no hard and fast rules as to what requires a trigger or content warning. Some key examples include, sexual violence, physical violence, abuse, racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny / violence against women, bereavement, detailed discussion of mental illness, self-harm or suicide. This is not an exhaustive list. If at all in doubt, it is safer to include a content warning.
No one is ever going to get it entirely correct. Triggers can be so wide and varied that it is nearly impossible to cover them all. Most importantly, the issue of content and trigger warnings revolves around empathy and sensitivity.
The only person who is allowed to definitely decide if something is triggering is the person for whom it causes distress.
If we offered content and trigger warnings with the same rigour we do spoiler alerts for that season finale you haven’t watched yet, the world (or maybe just the internet) would be a much better place.
Disclaimer: I am no expert in trauma or trauma response, but I am someone who significantly benefits from content and trigger warnings. My day-to-day work has also significantly revolved around content creation and social media for a number of years. I have dealt with sensitive editorial content and extensively researched this topic as a point of personal and professional interest. I am always interested to hear thoughts surrounding content and trigger warnings and would encourage you to share these in the comments.