‘Expecting the Worst: Investigating the Effects of Trigger Warnings on Reactions to Ambiguously Themed Photos’ – Victoria Bridgland

Victoria Bridgland from the College of Education, Psychology, and Social Work is one of the seven winners of the Best HDR Student Publication Award for 2019.

In her winning publication “Expecting the Worst: Investigating the Effects of Trigger Warnings on Reactions to Ambiguously Themed Photos” Victoria explores the topic of warning systems, often called “trigger warnings”. They are becoming widespread, as well as sensitive screen initiatives on social and news media sources. Warnings are also part of official mental health policy in some universities.

The purpose of trigger warning messages is to aid mental wellbeing by helping viewers avoid or mentally prepare themselves for the content they may find distressing. However, critics argue that trigger warnings may instead have maladaptive effects, such as encouraging negative expectancies and thus causing negative emotional reactions towards content.

Victoria’s publication is one of the very first papers published within this field to test these opposing possibilities. Her data suggest that although warnings may not exacerbate negative reactions, they also do not appear to help people mentally prepare to reduce the impact of potentially negative content. Victoria’s findings have important implications for using trigger warning systems as a mental health safeguard. Such systems may not be helping people to cope with content and instead may cause additional anxiety.

Victoria’s publication garnered significant media interest and was reported in the ‘New York Times’ and ‘Psychology Today’.

We invited Victoria Bridgland to share some insights into her PhD journey and what winning this award means to her. “Awards like this one are incredibly important for me because familiar forms of feedback we have likely had for the last 15+ years, e.g., grades, are no longer present. It can sometimes be hard to know if you are on the right track and to stay motivated. This is especially true when we stay inside of ‘the research bubble’ for long hours and with no contact from the community outside. This award is particularly special to me because it is my very first publication.”, Victoria said.

Trigger warnings are an incredibly politically charged and polarising topic online. Advocates claim that they are beneficial for mental health and wellbeing, but critics argue that they can lead to a coddled snowflake generation. With this context in mind, Victoria is particularly proud of bringing a scientific framework to the debate, to test whether the claims held water once taken out of a political context and tested in an experimental, and therefore neutral, or as neutral as humanly possible paradigm. She is also very proud of representing her fantastic research lab and her supervisor. “Without them, I would not be where I am today.”, she said.

When asked why she chose to study PhD, Victoria said that she never even imagined that PhD would be an option for her. “PhD students seemed to me like mythical creatures full of wisdom”, she added. Then she realised how fantastic opportunity it was for both, her academic/ professional career and her personal life. “I have already had so many great adventures in and outside the lab and I will be incredibly sad when it is all over.”, she said.

Victoria’s single piece of advice for current or prospective PhD students is to apply for and engage with every opportunity that comes their way, whether it is small or big. She says: “You just never know who you will meet, what you will learn, or what you could achieve. And it could be life-changing or just a good adventure, or both!”

When asked why she chose her supervisor, Victoria said: “It is hard for me to find the right words or words adequate enough to describe how grateful I am for the opportunity to be supervised by Associate Professor Melanie Takarangi. I was drawn to Associate Professor Takarangi through a combination of interest in her research and the relationship she had with her graduate students. She uses a team-based supervision model which means all of us graduate students function as a lab family, provide multiple sources of support, guidance, shoulders to cry on, and people to play (virtual) Cards Against Humanity with.”

Victoria is looking forward to her future research on the use of trigger warnings in online spaces. “Just as the impacts of social media on various aspects of wellbeing and mental health are unknown, the use of warnings on these platforms has also never been studied, despite sites like Instagram claiming such warnings help prevent outcomes like teen suicide.”, she said.

To view Victoria Bridgland’s full publication, click here.

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