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Updated: Jul 11, 2022

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A content warning is a statement that cautions the consumers of a media about potentially disturbing content that may cause mental distress. While research continues to debate on whether content warnings are actually helpful or not, they undoubtedly give a heads up to the audience. Especially if they are graphic scenes - since they can especially make people relive some of the traumatic moments in their life.

When I was thirteen years old, I discovered what self-harm was through a YouTube video that I, along with some friends, had stumbled across. It appeared out of the blue and in that moment I had been exposed to something quite frightening for my age - and as I later learnt, so had many other people. So let me pose a mathematical problem. If five seconds of that one image still hasn’t left my head in ten years, how long would it take, on average, for a thirteen year old to forget the three minute graphic suicide scene in 13 reasons why. I didn’t think it was not mindfully presented and neither did a lot of other people. It wasn’t the first time a TV show or movie had depicted suicide and self-harm in this extremely graphic and lengthy manner.

Scenes like these have been prevalent in visual mediums for years, it is only at this point in time that many people have begun to question the effectiveness of this approach. So, of course, it poses the question of why film and television producers decide to include traumatising visuals especially when they are geared towards teenage demographics.

As cinema gets more realistic, graphic scenes of sexual violence and assault or portrayal of traumatic survival stories are becoming very common, which is why we need these warnings. While one may argue that the filmmakers are trying to capture the reality of a situation that is experienced by many people, the unnecessarily scenes of violence towards others (or self) could be causing more harm than good. Scenes of violence need not be very long or extremely graphic.

Let us consider the 2019 press release by the National Institute of Mental Health that highlighted there was a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among 10 to 17 year olds following the month 13 Reasons Why was released. The report further states, he number of deaths by suicide in this month were higher than in any other month in the previous five years. The Journal of American Medical Association Network discussed internet search trends following the release of the show wherein they reported a cumulative 19% increase in questions of suicidal ideation.

Do content warnings “censor” art? By defending creative freedom and freedom of speech, critics of trigger and content warnings advocate for the rights of the creator over those of their audiences, and as a consequence, the gap between the intention of a film and its effect is seemingly forgotten. When we advocate for content warnings, we are not asking for pixelated scenes, we are simply asking for warnings about what they are about to be shown. I want television and cinema to represent the underrepresented life experiences, but does that really mean we have to be careless in our approach?

To understand the importance of a trigger warning, we need to understand what it means to be triggered.

Contrary to what the pop-culture that generally ridicules trigger warnings believes, trigger warnings aren’t to protect people from getting “offended” as in contemporary conversation. It is more to do with protecting people from feelings of anger or indifference. Psychologically speaking, ‘triggered’ has to do with the activation of a trauma trigger, which could be any stimulus that reminds an individual of a traumatic event. Trigger warnings have been criticised due to fears that they may have negative consequences in preventing individuals from exposing the ‘harsh realities’ of the world. Critics also state that the practice represents a culture of hypersensitivity, over-protection or entitlement. On the other hand, they serve as an indication of distressing content which can help an individual prepare themselves.

The American Psychological Association declared that vivid depictions of trauma are more distressing if they happen without any warning than if the survivor intentionally thinks about their trauma. Furthermore, unprompted triggering content information can cause a plethora of other mental distresses like panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, etc.

In fact, 'getting triggered' is an actual psychological phenomenon wherein the 'survival brain' - amygdala - hijacks the 'thinking brain' - prefrontal cortex. The amygdala reacts 80 to 100 times faster than the prefrontal cortex, which is why individuals have panic or anxiety attacks upon seeing triggering material.

If you Google, you will find that not a lot of research exists on why it is important to include trigger or content warnings before the media, but you will find pop culture articles flooding the page calling the warnings infantilising the audience. There is a lot of negative misunderstanding of such warnings which is why they are often ridiculed. Even if they are coddling the viewership, there is no need for others to force them to “grow up”. It is not your responsibility to be their parent, but it is your responsibility to be kind. Furthermore, trigger warnings are such a small way of helping survivors that it is appalling that they are an issue. If content warnings are helpful to others but not to you, let them simply help the people they are intended to help.


Author: Samira Sarin

Content and Research Lead For Limelighting Life Collective

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