You’re probably familiar with the use of movie ratings to gauge whether a movie is appropriate for certain audiences. They notify viewers of sex, violence and drug use, and in a way, act as a kind of advisory. In addition to these ratings, there are often advisories such as “viewer discretion advised” that precede visual media. While commonly associated with movies and TV, content advisory can appear in different places, from books to music to live performances.
The University of Michigan’s Inclusive Teaching site defines content advisories as “verbal or written notices that precede potentially sensitive content. These notices flag the contents of the material that follows, so readers, listeners, or viewers can prepare themselves to adequately engage or, if necessary, disengage for their own wellbeing.” Another common term for content advisories is “trigger advisory,” in reference to triggers that might cause a person to experience an anxiety or PTSD response.
While some people might view content advisories as younger generations having a weaker backbone, it is actually very important when it comes to making sure everyone feels safe and comfortable in their environment.
Before getting into why content advisories are useful or even crucial, it’s necessary to understand that not everyone agrees on their effectiveness. A Psychology Today article looked at the findings of a Harvard study on content advisory. Researchers had participants read passages from classic novels like “Moby Dick” and “Crime and Punishment”, but some students got this message before the passages: “TRIGGER WARNING: The passage you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.” The Psychology Today article states that the “trigger warnings led to no self-reported differences in anxiety between the two groups overall, but for participants who already held the belief that ‘words cause harm,’ trigger warnings led to an increase in anxiety.” By this alone it would seem that content advisories might do more harm than good. But both the researchers on the study and the author of the article noted a major flaw: the study was not conducted with people who have actually suffered trauma.
Naysayers of content advisories not only debate advisories effectiveness, but also whether they might actually prevent healing and learning. The key is this: content advisories don’t stop people from doing anything. They’re meant to give people a choice. While eventually facing content that might be triggering could be a kind of exposure therapy for people that have experienced trauma, it should be a choice. Content advisories allow people to make that choice.
Willamette student Emma Burgess (‘21) echoed their importance in class. “If a student has experienced a traumatic event or situation encountering triggering material unexpectedly, without preparation it can have serious emotional repercussions, cause mental harm and ultimately distract from learning and impact students’ grades. Content warnings allow individuals to prepare themselves, the chance to choose when and where they absorb the information and who is around them, as to best feel safe,” she said.
ASWU member Kaizen Betts-LaCroix (‘21) is working to create a standard content advisory that professors will be able to put into their syllabi. They worked with the Title IX committee and the Teaching and Learning committee to craft statements that were satisfactory. To the best of Betts-LaCroix’s knowledge, the statements will be included in the suggested syllabus additions for next semester. They also note that the language “advisory” has been intentionally chosen over “warning.”
“Among the faculty who have spent time on the topics the preferred language has been ‘content advisory.’ The thinking behind using ‘advisory’ rather than ‘warning’ is that we don’t want to imply that a topic necessarily poses a danger that needs to be ‘warned’ of; ‘advisory,’ rather, emphasizes that the intention is to give students the information to be able to better make their own choices about what’s best for them.”
Betts-LaCroix worked on two statements. One acknowledges that the class might have triggering material and notes that the professor will provide specific advisories for materials that might be triggering, as well as asking students to come forward with specific concerns they might have. The second advisory states that the professor has chosen not to use content advisories, but that students should still come forward with specific concerns. It remains to be seen if either of these advisories will be utilized in spring semester classes.
“Coping mechanisms that help people with trauma overcome what might be their initial feelings of panic or anger, or dissociation exist, but many of them work best with forewarning. The purpose of a content advisory is to provide that forewarning,” they said.
Even though some may be skeptical, hopefully content advisories will become more common. It doesn’t take a lot of time to give people a heads up and it can spare so much grief. It also gives the person the power to choose what material they want to engage with in a healthy way and what might be too much too soon. Perhaps Burgess said it best: “If you can prevent a student’s emotional pain just by warning them, wouldn’t you want to?”