Does Netflix have a responsibility to provide trigger warnings on its content? - Hack - triple j

Jan 12, 2021 12:14 AM
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Netflix expanded its classification system to include sexual violence, suicide and self-harm last year. Image: Source: Unsplash

It was about six months ago when 22-year old disability support worker Caitlin Norman started noticing just how much sexual violence there was in movies and shows on Netflix.

"Just when I started to be diagnosed with PTSD and noticed that there were a lot of everyday triggers is when I noticed there wasn't anything to let me know to be careful of certain videos and movies," Caitlin told Hack.

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Caitlin had been assaulted when she was 17, but it took her a long time to start talking about her experience. And when she did disclose it, she started becoming aware of how common depictions of violence actually were in pop culture.

"I realised there were no ratings of how violent or what kind of themes would be depicted in the show," she explained.

"If you're watching a horror movie or a true crime show you expect that, but there are a lot of films where a main character gets assaulted half way through and there's nothing in the synopsis to warn you that it might be a theme in this movie."

You may be wondering what it actually means to be "triggered". For some survivors with PTSD, like Caitlin, the reaction is both physical and mental.

"It's a feeling of being unsafe. From there it escalates to a full-on panic attack."

Caitlin got in touch with Netflix to ask them to put a simple one-line content warning ahead of any content that depicts sexual violence.

"Just having that warning would let me decide if I'm in the right mindset, the right mood, for this kind of content or if I'm not feeling that good that day to avoid it," she said.

Caitlin Norman said she was surprised to learn that Netflix doesn't put trigger warnings on its content.


To be clear, Caitlin wasn't asking for Netflix to remove or censor any of the material, or even for people to change their own viewing behaviour. She just wanted to be given the option of not consuming media if she wasn't feeling up to it.

"It's not about tuning that content out of your life; it's about picking the days when you can handle it and when you can't."

Caitlin received a polite and considerate reply to her message, but it came with a warning that Netflix gets thousands of inquiries every day, and not to expect a resolution anytime soon.

So Caitlin decided to take matters into her own hands. She set up a petition to get a bit of momentum behind the cause.

What kind of obligation do streaming services have with this stuff?

Films and TV shows have had to include classifications and ratings -- like G, PG, MA 15+ -- on material containing violence, sexual themes and foul language for instance, since the late 1960s. That's part of the Classification Act so it's a legal requirement.

Last year, Netflix introduced a label for content containing sexual violence, suicide and self-harm, too.

"To help our members make informed viewing choices, all TV shows and movies on Netflix include maturity ratings. These maturity ratings are determined by the frequency and impact of mature content in a title, and also provides details on the mature content found within a TV show or movie, if applicable," a

spokesperson for Netflix told Hack in a written statement.

PhD candidate at Flinders University, Victoria Bridgland, is one of a handful of people studying the effects of trigger warnings, and was among the first to look at the issue back in 2016.

Victoria Bridgland is among just a handful of researchers in Australia looking into the affects of trigger warnings.


She told Hack that explicit trigger warnings like the one Caitlin is calling for goes beyond the current legal requirements for streaming services.

"Trigger warnings take it a step further. Instead of just saying this is the type of content that might be in the show, it might suggest the reactions that people might have [to that content]. It's not just telling you what's in it, it's telling you how you might feel about it," Victoria said.

Victoria's research has found that those one line trigger warnings might actually do more harm than good in some instances.

"They can make people feel really nervous and anxious before viewing something. Then when they go on to view the material, it doesn't seem to have any [change] in that reaction," she explained.

And while trigger warnings might lead to people feeling a bit more empowered about their choices, they don't necessarily lead to a change in the way people consume content.

"Our early research tends to suggest that trigger warnings don't lead to avoidance all that much."

Victoria's research looks at warnings on Insta and some news sites to inform people that an image might be confronting. Most people clicked anyway.

"We found that 80 to 85 per cent of people were happy to click through and view the photo."

Trigger warnings 'can be improved'

Victoria explained that her research is still in its infancy, and she's not saying that trigger warnings are pointless or useless.

She points to an example of a creative warning that Netflix introduced at the start of the second season of the show 13 Reasons Why, following backlash to a graphic suicide scene in the show's first season.

"At the start of season two, they had the actors come on screen and say 'this is just a show, and if you're distressed please see someone'. I thought that was really good [because it pointed people to] resources to help," Victoria said.

These creative ways of warning people of content, over and above the simple one liner that we're used to, makes people feel less distressed and more supported, Victoria said.

"If you've given them that warning and nothing else, there's no tools there to help [the audience if they're affected]," she said.

"I would eventually like to get to a place of developing really good ways of doing trigger warnings."