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Movies and TV Shows need more trigger warnings — here’s Why

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Content Warning/Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of severe anxiety, panic attacks, mental distress, and other material that may be triggering to some readers. Please consider your personal comfort and headspace before engaging with the article. 

One of the many beauties of entertainment media is how it allows audiences to engage with difficult themes in a theoretical setting. Though viewers witness and empathize with the characters and events unfolding on screen, those experiences remain within the realm of fiction. What happens, then, when on-screen events remind audience members of their traumas, and suddenly become all too real?

Trigger warnings and content warnings are used to alert viewers of material that they may find disturbing due trauma and mental distress. Today, the use of these warnings is expanding, particularly in the news and on social media. In the entertainment industry, however, the practice is far from comprehensive. 

The use and effectiveness of trigger warnings is heavily debated. For this reason, I am disclosing the fact that I am not a medical, scientific, or psychological expert—this article is written entirely from my own personal opinion and experiences, and people with valid knowledge and experiences will disagree with my point of view. However, I believe that proper trigger warnings are necessary as viewers balance engaging with challenging themes in film and TV while taking care of their mental health. 

Personal experience with the absence of trigger warnings

In the past two years, I have struggled with intense anxiety and consistent panic and anxiety attacks. Despite recent improvements, I am wary of situations and entertainment content that remind me of the omnipresence of fear and loss of control that comes with the onset of anxiety. One generic evening, however, my family chose to watch A Hologram for the King, starring Tom Hanks. The film is supposed to be a comedy-drama, but for me, one single unexpected scene twisted it into a memory reel of the most anxious and distressing moments of the past two years of my life.

Around halfway through the movie, the main character, Alan, suffers a panic attack. Suffice to say, Hanks and the directors do the experience uncanny justice. I couldn’t tell you how long the scene actually lasts, but it felt like it went on forever and it felt real. The shock of such an unexpected reminder of my own panic attacks stirred an anxiety attack in response to the scene. Needless to say, my family did not resume the movie.

Looking back on that experience, I am most bothered that in all of the film’s descriptions, ratings, and reviews, it is not once evident that anxiety and panic attacks play a significant role in the movie. According to IMDb.com, A Hologram for the King is rated R by the MPAA (and 14A in Alberta, Canada) for “some sexuality/nudity, language and brief drug use.” Mental distress was a key plotline, but nowhere is it mentioned. I had no way of knowing that I would be engaging with that kind of content, and it is for this reason exactly that trigger warnings must be applied to film and TV on all platforms.

How do trigger warnings help?

Trigger warnings clearly indicate the potentially distressing content found in a piece of entertainment. This allows people to be aware of the types of scenes that they may encounter as the film or show progresses, and to examine whether they are in the right headspace to process that challenging material. If the viewer deems the content heralded by the trigger to be too heavy for their current mindset or mood, that knowledge enables them to choose a more suitable piece of entertainment. On the other hand, if they choose to proceed with the show or movie, the viewer has the ability to be mentally prepared for the distressing content. Because the material is expected, the audience member has greater control over their response, and the potential for harm is reduced. 

In either case, the presence of trigger warnings allows people to protect themselves and their mental health while engaging with entertainment media. Appropriate and adequate warnings give audience members, particularly individuals who struggle with trauma and mental illness, the agency to define their own experiences — something that may have been taken away from them at some point in their past.

Don’t Content Warnings Already Exist?

Yes, content warnings exist for virtually every piece of entertainment media today, however, these are not the same as trigger warnings. A content warning alerts audiences of material that may be offensive or unsuitable for viewers of a certain maturity and/or age, but may not provide warnings for subjects that may be seriously distressing for individuals with particular life experiences and/or traumas. Again, in A Hologram for the King, the film’s content warning indicates the presence of drugs, sex, and profanity, which may be unsuitable or offensive for some audience members, but it does not include a warning about the depiction of panic attacks and severe anxiety for viewers who struggle with those experiences.

Trigger warnings are slowly being integrated into entertainment media, more so (I find) on streaming services than in cinemas. A notable example is Netflix’s The Crown, which broaches the development of Princess Diana’s struggles with bulimia. All episodes related to this subject are preceded by a warning about the distressing material, as well as a URL redirecting viewers to resources providing support for individuals affected by eating disorders. If a person who struggles or struggled with an eating disorder watched these episodes, they would be aware of the content and would have the agency to decide whether or not they wanted to engage with it.

I find that The Crown has adopted a useful and respectful method to provide trigger warnings for distressing content. For Netflix and the larger entertainment industry, the next step is to introduce this practice universally into reviews and summaries, as well as before films and episodes begin. As content warnings already exist, it is not unfeasible to include and require specific notices for pieces of media that contain common triggers. A few seconds of a dark screen with a trigger warning typed in a clear font does not detract from the overall viewing experience and protects audience members from serious emotional and mental reactions to difficult content.

Why isn’t the use of Trigger warnings already Widespread in the Entertainment industry?

To put it plainly, the de-stigmatization and accommodation of trauma and mental illness in society is a slow and arduous process. Many people don’t understand why trigger warnings are necessary because they have never experienced the emotional and mental toll of watching their traumatizing experiences replayed on the silver screen. Others argue that the use of trigger warnings polices content and leads down the slippery slope of censorship. If I was not already clear, I would like to reiterate that this is absolutely not the case. The usefulness of these warnings is derived from their ability to alert the viewer and give them the capacity to decide for themselves what they want to watch, not from regulating what is being depicted in movies and shows.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the efficacy of trigger warnings themselves is a highly controversial topic. Studies conducted in 2018 and 2020 indicated that trigger warnings may have no mitigating effects on negative responses to distressing content, and, in some cases, may marginally increase an individual’s anxiety before they engage with the triggering content. This is not my personal experience: when I encounter trigger warnings, I am not more apprehensive — in fact, I am relieved to know in advance if any scenes may induce an anxiety attack. Therefore, I still believe that trigger warnings are useful and effective, a sentiment that I have heard echoed around me and on the Internet. For a compelling narrative that supports this perspective, I redirect you to Maria Lattila’s personal experience with the lack of trigger warnings in entertainment media.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Trigger warnings have become a commonplace feature and subject in Internet discourse, but the entertainment industry has failed to incorporate them effectively. I firmly believe that companies must move swiftly to add appropriate and specific trigger warnings to any distressing content they produce for cinemas, TV channels, and streaming. This will improve audience members’ agency in relation to their mental health and prevent serious and sometimes life-threatening emotional responses.

As this transition occurs, several existing resources allow individuals to research (spoiler-free!) possible trigger warnings in their entertainment. Ideally, community-based resources like the ones linked below will be supplemented by the presence of official trigger warnings in entertainment soon enough, but until then, they may be helpful as audiences engage with new movies and shows while taking care of their mental and emotional well-being. 

Remember: your entertainment, your pleasure, your choice. 

Select resources for Identifying Possible trigger warnings: Doesthedogdie.com, Unconsentingmedia.org, Triggerwarnings!, healinghonestly.com, TWdatabase. Full disclosure: these lists are by no means exhaustive and may not address a viewer’s particular triggers. They are, however, a helpful place to start.
Maia Tustonic

Carleton '26

Maia is a Carleton University Journalism student passionate about politics and international relations (so original!). She loves music, languages, and travel, and can always be found surrounded by some kind of story. Find her on Twitter @mretustonic.