“Consider This A Warning” On Books And Blogs

Content-based ratings are a step or two below outright bans on the censorship spectrum.  These types of ratings purport to inform consumers, particularly parents, about controversial content, but they are often no better than a ban.

Earlier this year, in an article published in Mass Communication & Societyoverly sensitive researchers tried to make the case for such content-based warnings on the covers of books on the grounds that many books marketed for adolescents and teenagers contain profanity. I wrote about this study over the summer, concluding that these researchers made a stronger case for how arbitrary and meaningless age ratings are.  Are words like “crap” and “dammit” really enough to trigger a warning?  How many f-yous would it take?  That’s the problem: it’s all subjective and highly dependent on each family’s standards.  The researchers suggest that ratings would merely empower parents, but meaningless ratings are not empowering, they’re misleading.  The end result of meaningless ratings would be an inevitable progression to the most prudish possible standard, upon which parents and school districts would rely to prohibit children from reading appropriate books.

Theme-based warnings that don’t claim to assert an “appropriate age” could be more helpful for consumers, if the warnings are tailored to the book and specific about the type of controversial content it contains: sexual violence, domestic abuse, hate crimes, child death, etc.  However, specific theme-based warnings could include spoilers and, more importantly, might not help parents or readers distinguish between books that depict such controversial content gratuitously and those that depict it for an important pedagogical purpose.  Placing too much emphasis on a warning could turn people away from thought-provoking material that could expose them to life lessons they otherwise would not experience.

The internet may mitigate the effects of such content warnings by making it harder for censorship-fanatics to “protect” young minds from colorful language and diverse viewpoints because it is much harder to monitor it.  Unless the material is pornographic, few website or blogs display content warnings, even when they contain profanity, graphic images, or graphic descriptions of sexual situations or violence.

Along the same lines as content ratings, some blogs use “trigger warnings” to caution readers about emotionally sensitive material that could exacerbate trauma.  While I appreciate the importance of these warnings, particularly in materials related to abuse and sexual violence, I wonder about how helpful they are for readers when they are too often used, applying to virtually any situation someone could find unpleasant (as opposed to truly traumatic experiences).  Does such overuse stifle honest discussion in online communities by deterring people from making comments they fear others may misunderstand?  It’s important to be mindful of others’ feelings, but not to the point that we stop having valuable discussions about difficult subjects.

In the end, I think that warnings about controversial content may do more harm than good.  Protecting children and highly sensitive people from non-obscene content serves little purpose, and the warnings have a tendency to be arbitrary and overused to the point that they might silence legitimate discussion and restrict the circulation of thought-provoking material.  An arbitrary or meaningless content warning on a book or on a website will not empower consumers.  Rather, it will more likely embolden those who are looking to justify their desire to control what others read.

Do you think books or blogs should have warnings? If so, under what circumstances?


  1. I believe ratings have harmed the movie industry in many ways. Many movies tone down their content to change an R rating into a PG-13 rating. The movie is no longer the director’s original intent, but whatever studios are demanding in order to make it accessible to a wider audience. I’m afraid a ratings system would cause even more damage to books, especially young adult books, as editors ask authors to remove any controversial material to try and boost its potential sales.

    1. You make a very good point about how ratings could affect the quality of books before they hit the shelves. I agree that the MPAA ratings are a disaster, and I wouldn’t want to see anything similar applied to books. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I agree with almost everything you say here. The only quibble I have is with the line
    “Protecting children and highly sensitive people from non-obscene content serves little purpose”

    I actually have two quibbles, now I think about it. Quibble one (I really like the word quibble, by the way) is with the concept of “obscene”. There is no such thing, or at least it is impossible to define universally, in the same way that offensive is impossible to define universally, and is therefore meaningless in any useful sense. One person’s obscene is another person’s Tuesday afternoons.

    The second quibble is that, to my mind, you seem to miss the more important point here. The point shouldn’t be that protecting children or the sensitive from ideas serves little purpose, it is that protecting people from ideas is wrong. Ideas aren’t in any way shape or form dangerous, so to claim that anyone needs to be protected from them is disingenuous. It is also a claim invariably made by people who want to control which ideas people are exposed to.

    In the case of children it is the parents who must be responsible for what their children are exposed to, not me (except for with my own children, of course) and certainly not society as a whole. It is neither my responsibility, nor my right, to determine what ideas your children are exposed to, nor you mine.

    As to the “overly sensitive”. If you are an adult and are unable to face certain ideas or expressions of those ideas, you are not a fully functioning adult and need to seek help. This in no way obligates society to bubble wrap the world so you don’t hurt your fragile mind, however.

    1. I like the word “quibble,” too. I agree with you, except that I do believe that there is some material that schools could regulate because it is obscene. Obscenity is notoriously difficult to define (and the Miller Test in the US isn’t perfect). Most sexual situations in books wouldn’t be obscene in my opinion, but might be to someone else, and even some sexual situations that aren’t obscene might not be appropriate for the very young. Educators have to make some decisions about what information is appropriate for the children in their schools and hopefully they would do so with input from the families in their communities (without entering into viewpoint discrimination). My only concern is the type of material that shouldn’t be a child’s “Tuesday afternoon” because they are too young to process it appropriately. That will change as they get older, and the standard applied to kindergarteners can’t be the same standard applied to high school students.

  3. The only thing that I do is put an NSFW warning if I think the photos I post shouldn’t be looked at with your boss nearby, and trigger warnings when I talk about rape and sexual assault. But I feel like this is more providing the reader with content information so they can make a choice about what they want to read, not WHO should read it.

    1. NSFW is an important warning (not that anyone is browsing the internet at work, right?!). As for trigger warnings, I see the purpose behind it and agree with it, but I’m never sure when it’s necessary to use one. Should there be a trigger warning on any mention of sexual violence (such as on this post, on which I did not put a trigger warning)? Or should it be reserved for more graphic and emotional discussions of traumatic experiences?

      1. I tend to reserve trigger warnings for graphic and emotional discussions or if there’s a potentially upsetting photo. I have PTSD so I tend to gauge it based upon my gut instinct, but I think that’s a reasonable way to measure it.

  4. I agree with you fully. I think there is not a sensible way to assess a warning. It is too subjective and based on maturity level of the reader. My other concern is like you mentioned, the overuse. It is like our threat alert warnings from the Homeland Security System. I became so over-conditioned to them after 911 that I stopped noticing even if they changed. Only one really mattered anyway – red. No one knew what to do under orange or yellow.

    1. That’s true–overuse can defeat the purpose of a warning. It’s so hard to know whether a content warning is accurate and so it’s probably best to just ignore it!

  5. The religious right is exerting great pressure now in all directions, and it doesn’t surprise me that content rating has come up. Do I think blogs should be rated? Depends. As you pointed out, what’s offensive to some is barely noticeable to others. I had a LiveJournal account for a year or two and I rated it for adults only, because I tend to swear and talk about things kids shouldn’t be privy to. Now I blog at Word Press only and there is no rating system. I doubt kids follow me but what do I know? No one knows you’re a cat online.

    1. It’s interesting to think about whether the burden should be on the blogger or on the parents. There’s only so much a blogger can do to self-censor, and a warning might encourage some children to visit (just like banning a book often increases interest in the book). I think the burden is on the parents. I wouldn’t have a problem with my children viewing your blog when they’re older (at four, they wouldn’t get it), but other parents may feel differently. You shouldn’t have to worry about it.

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