At a time when epidemic levels of stress and anxiety plague young people, a Harvard University analysis of multiple studies shows that the trigger warnings meant to protect them not only don’t work, they actually lead to more anxiety in kids.
Trigger warnings have become increasingly popular in recent years, their goal to protect impressionable young minds from potentially stressful situations and encounters. For example, students may be warned that the content they’re about to read or view contains material they may find offensive. Some institutions even allow students to opt out of such potentially ‘triggering’ situations.
But critics of trigger warnings argue that they unnecessarily coddle young people and not only fail to prepare them for the real world, but actually create higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Research appears to prove those critics correct.
The Harvard researchers looked at a dozen studies on trigger warnings to determine whether they offered a demonstrable benefit to the students they were designed to protect.
What they found was that “trigger warnings had no effect on subjects’ emotional responses to the material, did not make them likelier to avoid it, and had little to no effect on participants’ comprehension. They did, however, slightly increase subjects’ anxiety prior to being exposed to the material.”
The Harvard study comes on the heels of a similar meta-analysis by Australian researchers who came to virtually the same conclusion: trigger warnings don’t protect young people and may actually hurt them.
The Australian researchers concluded: “In our review of 20 peer-reviewed studies, published between 2010 and 2020, we found that trigger warnings can inflame existing stressors and exacerbate maladaptive behaviors, both of which can undermine students’ autonomy and their ability to cope with potential distress.”
Growing Anxiety Levels in Young People
It’s an important issue given the growing epidemic in levels of youth anxiety, depression, suicide, and addictions. In other words, it seems clear that far from protecting young people, trigger warnings quite likely are contributing to their sense of fear and danger in the world around them.
By cultivating a ‘danger mindset,’ we are putting young people at risk of higher levels of anxiety and stress, says Jonathan Haidt, the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Haidt and others like him instead argue that young people should be taught to look squarely at the world around them in order to build some emotional resilience, which will serve them well in the long run.