Should Trigger Warnings Be Used In Media?

Trigger warnings are:

‘A statement at the start of a piece of writing, video etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).’ (Google)

It’s simple enough to understand, right? Trigger warnings alert an individual about potentially distressing and harmful content. Recently, there has been a controversy surrounding the use of trigger warnings in entertainment and whether they’re necessary.

Having lived experience of anxiety, an eating disorder, and abuse that has been triggered through the content I consume, I’m a passionate advocate for trigger warnings. Recently, I had to put a book down due to one particularly distressing scene. It hit too close to home. What happened in the book was extremely similar to something traumatic and utterly devastating I experienced. There was no forewarning at the beginning of the book that this content would be there. It needs to become a norm in the publishing industry that books – and other media formats – contain trigger warnings where appropriate.

Think of a trigger warning as you would an allergy warning. When you’ve got an allergy, like nuts, you look at food packets to see if they contain any nuts to avoid them. This you do because you’re trying to keep yourself safe. While it’s mostly those with allergies and specific dietary requirements who look at the ingredients list, those without are still able to look at the ingredients list if they so choose. 

‘But an allergy can be fatal. Being exposed to a ‘trigger’ in a form of entertainment can’t kill you.’ Oh, you ignorant lemon. Imagine watching a harrowingly graphic scene of a trauma you’ve experienced, causing flashbacks and suicidal thoughts. For those who experience intense suicidal thoughts from being triggered, it can be a life or death situation. Just because you don’t need those specific trigger warnings doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t.

Since the debate about trigger warnings began, I’ve seen three main arguments against them.

#1: It’s going to spoil the [insert choice of media here] for everyone

Did you know that if you don’t want to be forewarned about the content then you don’t need to pay attention to the trigger warnings? It’s a mind-blowing concept, I know. What about the synopsis and the trailer? Do you read or watch them? A trigger warning will tell you about as much, if not less, information as a synopsis or trailer would. I’m willing to bet the people adamant they don’t want trigger warnings in entertainment are the people who do read the synopsis and watch the trailers.

Those of us who advocate for the use of trigger warnings are simply asking for a heads up if the book/TV show/film/video game will contain a scene of a sensitive and distressing nature. This can include scenes depicting rape, abuse, and suicide. Remember Thirteen Reasons Why and the distress – and controversy – that scene caused? 

#2: Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings so why should [insert choice of media here]

You’re right, life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Do you know how difficult it is to be triggered by something that just happens to be everywhere? It makes life difficult. Really difficult.

Everywhere I go there are people talking about their diets. I hear about it in work, on the bus, in shops. Menus and food packets contain information about calorie content. While I no longer meet the criteria for an eating disorder, I still struggle daily with my thoughts. I know I’m going to come across it in my life and I’ve accepted that. Some days are better than others. Some days are downright overwhelming and I want to rip my own skin off. On those days, I need to escape. Entertainment provides that. I’m not at a place mentally where I can read a book nor can I watch a TV show/film featuring a character with an eating disorder. I read the synopsis or watch the trailers to protect myself but this doesn’t always provide enough information. A trigger warning will.

Those of us who find certain content triggering do all we can to protect ourselves in the real world. I avoid looking at the calorie content on food packets and I excuse myself from conversations that centre around weight or diets. Entertainment is a form of escape. It can be upsetting and traumatic when we come across the triggering content in our entertainment because we’ve not been properly forewarned. Life is unpredictable and we can’t protect ourselves from our triggers entirely, although we try, but it shouldn’t be too much to ask that we get a helping hand when it comes to entertainment.

#3: If you’re easily triggered then you shouldn’t be reading/watching/playing

Forms of entertainment, like books/TV shows/films/video games, can be an escape from the real world. When this world becomes too much, escaping into a fictional word through a book brings me comfort. Reading a book on the bus as I’m commuting to work and college have helped me to feel less anxious on public transport. My boyfriend prefers playing a video game. He prefers nothing more than to boot up his Playstation 4 or PC, kick back, and relax as he’s roaming around the world on the JRPG. Entertainment is an escape and, for some people, it’s all they’ve got to drown out the sorrows of this world. No one has the right to take that away from anyone.

Unless we’re forewarned we’re not going to know if we’re going to be triggered by a specific book/TV show/film/video game. It is unfair to say that we should never consume media just in case. This is why we need trigger and content warnings.

Trigger warnings serve an important and invaluable purpose for those of us who need it, yet because people are so quick to interject with the ‘but it spoils it for the rest of us’ card, they’re still not yet an industry standard. You can call us snowflakes all you want but we value our health and wellbeing, which includes our mental health. 

If you don’t require trigger warnings, skip them. Don’t read them. Don’t pay any attention to them. Just like ingredients lists on food packets aren’t necessary for you unless you have an allergy or specific dietary requirements, trigger warnings in entertainment are not for you either. By continually attempting to deny people the opportunity to have trigger warnings included in entertainment because you’re afraid it’s going to spoil it for you is contributing to the stigma that mental health doesn’t matter.

DO YOU AGREE WITH THESE POINTS? WHAT’S YOUR OPINION ON THE USE OF TRIGGER WARNINGS IN MEDIA?

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4 Comments

  1. This is really well put and I hope that people on both ‘sides’ of the debate about trigger warnings read it!
    I think that you make a really good point when you say that it is like having allergy information on food packaging – it doesn’t harm anyone if it doesn’t apply to you, but can be life-saving in the right context. I also think that a lot of the problems online have come from people saying that trigger warnings would put people off reading a certain book, or that authors now are held to a higher standard of responsibility than they used to be, although it is ultimately the publisher’s decision. Thank you for this!

    1. Thank you!
      What really gets me about this is other forms of media have content warnings and no one has ever complained about it. Except now it’s suddenly an issue when people are advocating for it in books. Everyone deserves a fair warning, especially when it comes to their mental health. It would be irresponsible otherwise. I’m really glad you like the analogy – gotta admit, I was pretty proud of that one, haha!

  2. I’m not against trigger warnings – I’ve been using them on my blog for a while – but I am against the people who are now claiming that writing about topics such as violence is wrong and makes someone a bad person. That’s advocating for censorship and supression of freedom of expression rather than fair warning. (I know you’re not advocating for that, I just needed to get it off my chest. 😉 )

    I’ve never seen a book with a trigger warning that counted as a spoiler because they don’t give enough detail to spoil anything. Besides, if that was REALLY a problem, they could get around it by saying “this book may contain scenes which some readers may find distressing”. Doesn’t give any detail, but gives the reader a choice about whether or not to take the risk AND lets them know that they might want to ask around first. They could also put them just inside the book, on one of the pages before the story starts, so people only have to look at them if they want to. There’s no reason why they have to be on the cover, just so long as everyone knows where to look for them.

    Video games use symbols (okay, I just Googled it and PEGI is apparently European so maybe they don’t on other continents or maybe they have different ones?) to warn for discrimination, drugs, fear, sex, violence, gambling, and bad language. They have done since I was a kid. I think this is the same concept.

    1. YES! Thank you for saying that. My post started because of Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. People were saying how she was a terrible author for writing about some of the topics included because of how triggering the content is and that she was only doing it for the shock factor, but that doesn’t make her a bad writer at all – a lot of writers include things for shock value, same as in TV/movies, but she was also writing about her own experiences. It’s like you said, it’s censorship and suppression of freedom and it’s not okay at all. If someone doesn’t like the content then they don’t have to consume it – and a trigger warning would let them know to avoid.

      Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan included a trigger warning at the beginning of the book but didn’t specify where it was, only the themes that it included to warn readers beforehand, and I think more publishing companies need to look to that book as an example of what to do for trigger warnings in the future.

      Exactly! Video games have been using them for a long time and no one ever complains about it. I do think, depending on the game itself and the content, sometimes the warnings they use are a bit too vague, but if they can do it then so can all other forms of media.

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