Trigger warning image of sensitive content

How to Properly Use & Engage with Trigger Warnings

What are trigger warnings exactly? How can we effectively use them? In short, trigger warnings help us engage with the world more securely. As someone who is genuinely helped by these warnings and who’s mental health is better when these warnings are provided, I have some insight to give here.

This is purely my perspective on why they are helpful and how to use them. Including some of the common myths surrounding the idea of trigger warnings. As there are a lot of people on the internet, specifically right-wing mouthpieces acclimatized to their provocations. It’s easy for this topic to come off politically, but trigger warnings create a safer mental health environment for everyone, and trolls shouldn’t create deterrents for a change in the way we consume media.

When media is being created that could include something potentially triggering like a public presentation, speech, poem, tweet, book, video, show, or film, anything you are creating or helping to create can, and I believe should include trigger warnings if they include sensitive information or topics.

So what consists of ‘sensitive’ information or topics? If your piece of media contains content like sexual assault, rape, police brutality, domestic abuse, child abuse, a murder, or violent bigotry, such things should have trigger warnings attached to them.

Sharing videos depicting triggers is very often important to create awareness surrounding an issue, however, making sure to not censor trigger words is also just as important and consider muting certain words on apps such as Twitter and Facebook to further protect yourself. Many believe sharing stories and information is just as effective as images and videos of violence or death. For example, Sandra Bland’s mugshot is still widely shared online, it may be just as effective to share her story. Especially when it’s unlikely that in any other occurrence a picture of a dead body would be circulated so widely.

Sharing pictures or videos of dead bodies or murders is degrading and very triggering, almost all of these cases are of black people and black bodies. Remember that instead, you can share resources and funds people can donate to in light of everything we are witnessing today. Signing petitions, donating, and sharing educational resources is also just as important to the #blacklivesmatter movement. We can stand with George Floyd, Breyonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper and the many other victims in ways that aren’t dehumanizing.

Many publications use the abbreviations TW (trigger warning), CW (content warning), or CN (content note). These abbreviations can all be used synonymously. But in social media posts especially, where people consume a lot of information in a very short time, a quick exclamation of “TRIGGER WARNING!” is not enough.

If you post a trigger warning without saying what is the actual trigger or without telling your audience what is the specific trigger or what is the topic that will be discussed, it becomes useless. For example saying, “trigger warning!” then going into talking about self-harm isn’t helpful to someone that may have suicidal ideation in your audience. They have no idea what the trigger is and you’re removing the choice of engagement, this risks exposing the same people you were trying to protect with a warning.

This is an example of the most common and least effective trigger warning, these warnings have no description of what the piece of media contains. It is simply telling you that the content has something that is potentially triggering. Considering how many people continuously are exposed to media that could have been avoided with a little more attention to detail, it’s a wonder how these warnings are still the norm. Making sure to not censor the trigger warnings is also just as important, many people on social media have words and topics muted for a reason. You risk exposing the same people you are trying to protect once again.

This warning is better. The consumer is now warned of potentially triggering content, although ‘explicit content’ could mean many things, at the very least it’s somewhat descriptive.

This warning post would be considered the most beneficial. It not only informs you that the post contains triggering content, but it also describes the kind of content in the post. Vulnerable people are now properly warned and mentally prepared for the content if they choose to engage with it.

With over seven billion people on this planet. Everyone has different life experiences that are shaped by family, friends, society and the media around them. What could be triggering for some could be fine for others. For instance in the US, if a train hit a person and it was played on the news, the news would only play the video until before the moment of impact. Whereas in the Middle East, the video may be played in its entirety on the local news. This is not to say that people in the US are too sensitive or that the people of the Middle East are too desensitized. It just means the cultures see the video differently because of the way they perceive the world around them.

Trigger warnings are now a part of life on both TV and social media. Videos of sexual harassment are bound to evoke a trigger trauma in someone who has been previously sexually assaulted. However, videos depicting violence could trigger responses in almost anyone, so trigger warnings that carry a better explanation of their content would help many people wanting to avoid sensitive content. Whether it is to protect children or vulnerable people these simple warnings create a safer and healthier environment for all.

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