Content warnings need to be better.
You need to actually say what you’re warning for, rather than just saying ‘content warning’. I mean, I’m grateful you’ve told me there’s content in whatever you’re showing me, but I probably need to know a little bit more before I can tell whether I’m ready to engage with it or not.
You need to be general but accurate. There’s no point putting ‘sexuality’ in your content warning if you actually mean to warn for a mention of sexual assault. Sure, they both contain the word ‘sex’, but gosh do they mean vastly different things. On the flip side, you don’t need to be uber specific with your warning and you definitely don’t need to describe the content in detail: that nullifies your warning altogether.
Including a content warning does not end at including the words at the beginning of your game, movie, presentation, panel, Facebook post, article, or whatever else you’re making—even if your warning is the perfect balance of general and accurate. You still need to think about what actions a person might wish to take if they want or need to disengage with your content, and how easy it is to do this in the environment they’re in.
After all, that’s literally the point of content warnings. They allow people to choose the actions they wish to take, after being informed of what lies ahead. They’re not designed to make us avoid everything, and they’re not designed to alleviate us from our responsibility of engaging with the world. They’re designed to enable us to make informed choices about how and when we approach things around us. So, if someone chooses to disengage after hearing or reading your content warning, they need to be able to do so in a respectful, dignified way.
They need ample time and space to access an exit, and a place to go. A crowded theatre, blocked off exits, an autoplayed cutscene, or an instructor telling everyone to stay in their seats can all contribute to a person being unable to exit the space. As for time, there’s no hard and fast rule here; generally, if someone is only hearing the next slide will content something potentially triggering two seconds before you go to that next slide, you haven’t given them enough time to process and react. Make sure the space is close to wherever your event or panel is, and allows people to re-enter if they choose.
Don’t publicly question people about their actions. Just don’t. It draws attention, makes people feel ashamed for not being ‘strong enough’, and generally doesn’t accomplish anything. If you need to speak with them about what happened, follow up privately afterwards. Or, even better, have a designated person they can speak with about anything distressing or triggering.
And, finally, be human. Be honest. Own up when you stuff up. Realise you won’t ever be perfect. Realise people have triggers and stressors you would’ve never thought about. Don’t get defensive when someone disengages with your thing or tells you it needed a content warning. Acknowledge, apologise, and do better next time.