Trigger warnings have been around for decades but exploded on college campuses more recently as more students claimed to have suffered various traumas in their lives.
In 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote their seminal work on trigger warnings for The Atlantic, arguing that trigger warnings help people avoid their fears, which prevents them from moving on and getting better. The two academics explained that if someone who has a terrifying experience in an elevator and develops a fear of elevators is not warned to stay away from them for the rest of their life. Instead, they are gradually reintroduced to elevators until they are no longer afraid.
Trigger warnings were initially intended not to be about avoiding content but preparing those with trauma to engage in it. As we all know, this was never the case, as the warnings gave students at colleges and universities an excuse to avoid numerous works – including classics like Shakespeare and “The Odyssey.”
Occasionally, a study would come out showing that trigger warnings were useless or even harmful to students, yet they persisted with academics insisting they were necessary to combat the growing mental health crisis among young adults.
Now, however, a review of 17 studies relating to trigger warnings shows that they are, indeed, harmful. The Chronicle of Higher Education looked at the peer-reviewed studies and found that trigger warnings made things worse for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“The consensus, based on 17 studies using a range of media, including literature passages, photographs, and film clips: Trigger warnings do not alleviate emotional distress. They do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts, two hallmarks of PTSD. Notably, these findings hold for individuals with and without a history of trauma,” the Chronicle reported.
“We are not aware of a single experimental study that has found significant benefits of using trigger warnings. Looking specifically at trauma survivors, including those with a diagnosis of PTSD, the Jones et al. study found that trigger warnings ‘were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas,’” the outlet added. “What’s more, they found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to ‘view trauma as more central to their life narrative.’ ‘Trigger warnings,’ they concluded, ‘may be most harmful to the very individuals they were designed to protect.’”
The evidence that professors are harming students with trigger warnings has not caught on. As the Chronicle reported, Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State University, wrote at Inside Higher Ed about his use of trigger warnings. Bugeja wrote in his article that more professors should use more trigger warnings and include this note on their syllabi:
You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response.
Bugeja includes numerous trigger warnings on his syllabus, and they’re not just about things related to actual PTSD. Anything that might cause “difficult emotional responses” in students is included, including words and phrases like COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and Trump.
The Chronicle insisted that Bugeja’s overuse of trigger warnings would likely “impede meaningful engagement with difficult topics and reinforce the idea that students are inherently fragile.”
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