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Warning! There’s a debate about ‘potentially distressing’ material

Some experts claim they help people avoid exposure to distress, others say that they can hinder the development of resilience.

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Portrait of young blond woman with remote watching scary movie on tv at home. Worried expression
The final list of categories included violence, sex, stigma, disturbing content, risky behaviors, mental health, crime, and abuse.
(Mix Tape/Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

A common language for trigger warnings has been developed after research found that the current system did not adequately take account of the needs of the intended audience.

The education sector has the most frequent mentions of warnings relating to violence and sex, whilst audio-visual industries - such as film and television - were the highest users of warnings about "disturbing" content, according to the findings.

The study was a collaboration between experts at the University of Illinois, University of Nottingham, UK, and members of the Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP) who bring personal experiences of mental health problems.

Trigger warnings and content warnings are statements at the start of a video, TV program or piece of writing alerting the viewer that it contains "potentially distressing" material. They are used across a broad range of sectors, including film and in higher education.

But the warnings are contentious as while some experts claim that they can help people to avoid unwanted exposure to distress, others say that they can hinder the development of resilience.

The aim of the new study was to identify a common language for content warnings and to understand where and how content warnings are used.

The team identified 136 examples of published content warnings systems from 32 countries, and organised them into 14 categories. They also identified the sectors in which they were used, and the intended audience.

The final list of categories included violence, sex, stigma, disturbing content, risky behaviors, mental health, crime, and abuse.

The research, published in the journal PLOS One, formed part of the NEON study of online mental health recovery narratives.

Young indian man wearing denim shirt standing over isolated yellow background doing stop sing with palm of the hand. Warning expression with negative and serious gesture on the face.
The authors hope content warning systems will provide benefits for specific audiences, such as people with experiences of traumatic stress.
(Shift Drive/Shutterstock)

Dr. Stefan Rennick-Egglestone, from Nottingham University's School of Health Sciences in the UK, said: “By providing for a common language for content warnings, we hope that our categorization will allow their benefits and disadvantages to be more systematically investigated."

Dr. Rennick-Egglestone, who is also the coordinator of the NEON study, added: "We also hope that our research will enable the thoughtful development of content warning systems providing benefits for specific audiences, such as people with experiences of traumatic stress.”

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