There’s a lot of uncomfortable content on the internet, let’s be honest, and it’s often hard to get away from it. Lately, I’ve seen the words “trigger warning” and “content warning” cropping up over and over on articles concerning controversial or “touchy” topics. Given the talk surrounding mental health in Ireland of late, this is something that should be taken notice off – anxiety amongst our nation is on the rise, something trigger warnings aim to alleviate. It’s not just the internet -- in the U.S., there has been a call for college courses to indicate when material in a certain textbook has been deemed triggering for those suffering from trauma. Despite all this, many people still don’t understand what exactly trigger warnings are, or what they are used for. Trigger warnings are nothing new for tumblr bloggers ; “#TW” has been around on feminist and LGBTQ blogs for years. But lately the trigger warning has found its way onto Facebook, Twitter and even bigger news websites like TIME. So are trigger warnings the easily offended of the internet run amok, or are they genuinely helpful?
First, a definition: a “trigger warning” or “content warning” is a label that flags content in an article or video that may be distressing to certain viewers. Essentially, it’s the internet equivalent of a rollercoaster sign that says “do not ride if you are of a nervous disposition”. As someone who always, always listens to those signs, I will openly admit that I appreciate the idea of trigger warnings. I cannot imagine anything worse than clicking open a link that reminds me of a traumatic event – be it abuse, mental illness or self-harm – and spiralling into a panic attack. Surely anything that makes the internet a safer place is by no means a bad thing? As a friend said to me ““[they’re] easy to do and so beneficial” to those who suffer from mental health issues. Tagging a post takes less than a minute to do.
So far, so justified. However, it’s not just my opinion that counts, so I took to Twitter to get some opinion on the ground. The results were interesting. One user made the eloquent and relevant point that they are complicated, because it’s difficult to draw a line as to when a warning is “reasonable.” Another strongly praised the practice, saying that “they let people make an informed decision and curate an online safe space for themselves”, something that is often badly needed for those suffering with anxiety or PTSD. However, others had different opinions: only certain things warrant the warnings, and to tag everything and anything belittles the importance of the tag to those who really need it. Interestingly, responses came out at around 50-50 pro and anti-trigger warnings. I also spoke to TCD’s Gender Equality society, who informed me that “it was a controversial topic…that [they] were in favour of if necessary”.
To complicate things further: in May, Santa Barbara’s student union called for trigger warnings to be placed on books on the college’s syllabi. So, for example, a book like “Mrs Dalloway” by renowned author Virginia Woolf became a time bomb for those sensitive to suicide or depression. The request was met with some controversy, with many academics considering it a denial of their freedom; why shouldn’t they place a classic novel that deals with a difficult theme on their course? I spoke to a student working with LGBTQ groups in New York and he said that “nobody's calling for professors not to be allowed teach certain material, just that students have a right to have advance warning when particularly heavy topics come up in class.” Both are compelling arguments, so do we have a duty to make the lives of people easier, or is it better to expose a student to the issue, in the manner of a vaccination? The latter was advocated by Prof Metin Basoglu, a trauma specialist who recently spoke out on this very issue. He makes the compelling argument that one simply cannot avoid “triggering” material in day to day life; in fact, it’s simply impossible. Given the wealth of content at our disposal in 2014, I’m inclined to agree with him. But looking around me and seeing a generation growing up either de- or overly-sensitised to violence and horror, I wonder if something has to be done somewhere. Maybe pandering won’t help our anxiety-ridden society, but neither will ignoring the problem and allowing it to fester.
Between “drawing the line” with regard to trigger warnings and the wider implications of them for mental health, it is clear that there’s no straight answer with regard to this new approach to content. Furthermore, there are no guidelines: if I suffer panic attacks when faced with a small space, then, is that less reasonable to tag than a warning against something more typically serious? There’s the rub, it seems; no-one is sure just when to “draw the line” of securing a space, with many who step “over the line” labelled as whiny and overly-sensitive. Dismiss it if you may, but many feminist and LGBT rights groups of our generation are lobbying for “safer spaces” for those who suffer from anxiety and PTSD. It seems that regardless of your opinion on the matter, this article won’t be the last you see of the polemical #tw.