Hollywood Supports ‘Trigger’ Warnings

Ladies and gentlemen, imagine you’re deep into your favorite show. The main character is held captive by mercenaries, struggling to escape a labyrinthine prison. It’s a nail-biting scenario, and the tension is through the roof. But just as you settle in for the next episode, a warning flashes on-screen: “The following contains a depiction of suicide. Viewer discretion is advised.” Suddenly, you’re left thinking, “Well, I know how this story ends.”

This brings us to a modern TV dilemma: what happens when trigger warnings need spoiler warnings? With content disclaimers becoming more common, some viewers argue that these warnings can inadvertently spoil crucial plot points.

Consider Netflix’s “Baby Reindeer.” The show’s shocking assault scene was preemptively dulled by a warning: “The following episode contains depictions of sexual violence which some viewers may find troubling.”

Or take Apple TV+’s “Severance,” which tipped viewers off to a cliffhanger by revealing, “The following contains a depiction of self-harm.” “Better Call Saul” on the international streamer Stan went a step further, foreshadowing a major character death with a suicide hotline number.

This trend isn’t limited to a few shows. Titles like Netflix’s “You,” Hulu’s “Life & Beth,” TNT’s “Snowpiercer,” and Apple’s “The Morning Show” have all included trigger warnings at the start of episodes to alert viewers about sensitive content like suicide or sexual assault. Unlike standard parental guidelines, these warnings are specific and unavoidable.

The phenomenon took off after the release of Netflix’s 2017 teen drama “13 Reasons Why,” which dealt with the heavy topic of teen suicide. Following criticism and studies suggesting a link between the show and increased suicide rates among teens, Netflix added advisory warnings and eventually removed a graphic suicide scene entirely.

While some viewers appreciate these warnings, others find them problematic. Colleen Clemens from Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University notes that while warnings about trauma-inducing content are helpful, they often get conflated with general discomfort, leading to backlash.

On the other hand, psychology professor Deryn Strange points out that trigger warnings might not be as effective as intended. Her research suggests that rather than dissuading viewers, these warnings can create a “forbidden fruit effect,” making people more anxious and curious about the content.

However, trigger warnings often come with a “call-to-action card,” featuring links to resources or hotlines. Dawn Brown from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) observes a spike in helpline calls following such cards, indicating that they do reach and help some viewers.

Trigger warnings are currently applied on a case-by-case basis by content distributors. For instance, Netflix has a policy group working with writers to determine necessary warnings. Some streamers even provide websites with additional resources and information.

Despite some creatives pushing back against these in-show warnings, industry support remains strong. Showrunner Melissa Carter sees them as essential guardrails for young viewers, especially in the unregulated streaming environment.

Some shows are finding ways to balance warnings without spoilers. CBS’ “Ghosts” posted a vague warning about sensitive content on social media to avoid spoiling the episode. Similarly, Dropout’s “Dimension 20” uses general warnings, encouraging viewers to check episode descriptions for specifics.

Online platforms also help. Reddit forums and websites like DoesTheDogDie.com provide detailed trigger warnings without ruining the experience for everyone. Founder John Whipple emphasizes that his site aims to alleviate fear by giving users control over their viewing experience.