Troubling Trends and Trigger Warnings

The “iPhone 6 knees” challenge made its rounds on social media this past week. It is yet another example of how social media can be used to promote disordered eating. The challenge was used to prove how thin women’s legs were.

Because trends are inherently news, many women’s magazines and newspapers wrote about this. Some did a much better of reporting on it than others.

Kelsey Miller from Refinery29 did an exemplary job of reporting on this topic.

Because discussing a thinness challenge could potentially harm readers who are struggling with an eating disorder, Miller began the article with a trigger warning.

Trigger warnings have become somewhat controversial and even been the subject of some mockery. Regardless, I think the trigger warning used in this article was both a good and necessary decision. Trigger warnings allow for readers who may be affected by this article to either skip it or prepare themselves. I will let Miller tell you why:

‘Anything that claims to gauge one’s thinness and is accompanied by the word ‘challenge’ is going to be harder to resist for an eating disordered person,’ Kelsey Osgood told me. The author of How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, Osgood is both personally and professionally versed in the language and rituals of ED. While these images are not precisely the same as pro-ana propaganda (which isn’t simply about thinness, Osgood explains, ‘but rather about aspiring to be pathological in addition to being dangerously thin”), they’d very likely have a similar impact. ‘My guess is that if someone with an eating disorder didn’t ‘succeed’ at one of these challenges, he or she would feel like a fat failure, even if exhibiting a myriad other symptoms/side effects of an eating disorder,’ Osgood adds.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics explicitly emphasizes that journalists need to minimize harm through their work by showing compassion for those who may be affected by the coverage. This article could have detrimental side effects to people with eating disorders or struggling to overcome an eating disorder.

Journalists can’t always use trigger warnings in their work. It is impossible to know what is going to trigger everyone, but when reporting on troubling trends like “the iPhone 6 knee” challenge, it is important to do so. Reports on trends like this don’t do any good. It makes the trend more popular by discussing it. There is no good way to report on this, and Cosmopolitan provides the perfect example.

Although Cosmopolitan tried to discuss how terrible this trend was, it still promoted it. It provided images of the challenge, which perpetuates the idealization of overly thin bodies.

While the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics also said it is important to seek truth and report it, journalists constantly need to remember the potential implications of the articles they write.