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Content and Trigger Warnings in College Classrooms

What's a trigger warning?

A trigger warning, sometimes also known as a content warning, is a statement or disclaimer before a potentially disturbing image or statement.

They can take a variety of different formats and can often vary between platforms, and can range from text that warns for triggering content, to some which may choose to blur out content to warn users, or some who just block the content entirely.

Though some see this as being overly sensitive, it has also become a major part of how people have begun to talk about certain subjects within a classroom environment.

Though trigger and content warnings can be seen frequently on the internet, in radio and television broadcasts, and in press, using trigger warnings has gained popularity on college campuses.

For example, the University of Michigan has created a resource for its professors and students to use to understand what would constitute requiring a content or trigger warning, and gives different ways to give these warnings.

This allows for both the professor and the students to have an idea and expectation about how trigger and content warnings can be implemented into the classroom and why they are an important part of creating an inclusive learning experience.

There has been some research regarding the validity of using trigger warnings in the classroom. One piece of research that is often brought up was conducted by Harvard in 2018. In it, researchers randomly assigned their participants to either be prefaced with a trigger warning that the content they would be reading may be disturbing, while the others were not prefaced with that warning. They were then given a gory piece of literature from Crimes and Punishment. They found that the trigger warning didn’t reduce their anxiety regarding the graphic content, and that it had a neutral effect on their anxiety. There was a small number of those who saw the trigger warning and felt slightly more anxious, but this population in particular also said that they believed words could cause harm.

There were several issues with this study, most notably that there was no one within the study who had issues with seeing triggering content – so it is hard to know whether or not this would have helped someone who had experienced severe trauma.

They acknowledged that limit to their study, but they also specifically wanted to look at those who had not been diagnosed with PTSD or experienced trouble with triggers.

According to an article published by the Atlantic, around half of classrooms use trigger or content warnings at some point. Even in light of the Harvard study, a lot of teachers are still continuing to use trigger warnings and there are a few reasons for this:

  • They still want to respect those that may still have issues with PTSD and trauma.

  • They remind students that most of the times the moments in these stories can feel very real for some, and a basic reminder that people can come from all walks of life; and

  • You have no idea what one of your classmates may have gone through, or is still actively going through.

Dangers of omission

The most important argument towards content and trigger warnings have to do with the ethical concerns of not providing them.

If teaching content that may contain some sensitive materials, it may be worth mentioning.

Students will most likely still engage with the content, and may even have an easier time talking about difficult topics within a classroom because they feel it is a safe space for them to express their feelings, or feel they can find a safe space within the college to talk to anyone if they have any difficulty with the content

Trigger warnings certainly do not have to be a part of every college classroom, but they can be a part of making sure as many people feel comfortable as possible.

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