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Trigger warnings for abuse impact reading comprehension in students with histories of abuse

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The Problem: Trigger warnings (TWs) are alerts before media informing consumers with posttraumatic vulnerabilities that upcoming themes may contain trauma reminders. Advocacy for classroom TWs has stirred controversy. We examined whether students with self-reported trauma histories would avoid reading TW-labeled articles, if TW utilization affected reading comprehension, and if congruence between the TW content and trauma type influenced these effects. Method: Participants (N = 208) were given the option of reading one of four similarly titled articles about The State of Michigan vs. Lawrence Nassar trial. Two of the four options had randomly assigned TWs stating, “trigger warning: sexual abuse.” All participants then read the same article and completed measures of reading comprehension and posttraumatic stress. Results: Results showed that students did not differ in their selection of TW-labeled and unlabeled articles. Students with a history of interpersonal violence, however, showed significantly poorer reading comprehension of a TW-labeled article than those who read the same article but denied such histories (p = .004). Conclusions: Results did not support the concern that students may use TWs to avoid content but did support the concern that use of TWs may result in deleterious effects counter to their intended purpose.
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Keywords: reading instructors

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 15, 2020

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  • College Student Journal publishes original investigations and theoretical papers dealing with college student values, attitudes, opinions, and learning. Topics include the areas of undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, and may also include selected contributions dealing with college preparation.

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