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Social media content warnings not enough, study finds

Warnings about sensitive content on Instagram don’t deter people from viewing images and social media companies need to do more, researchers say.

February 2, 2023
By Annette Lin
2 February 2023

The cat will always find a way to indulge its curiosity, it seems.

Four out of five people scrolling Instagram will view sensitive content despite a warning screen, researchers at Flinders University have found.

“Social media companies say they are providing opportunities for people not to look but they are looking,” said Melanie Takarangi, one of the professors who conducted the study.

“My concern is that trigger warnings and social content screens look like a protective feature but might not be going far enough,” she said.

Instagram updated its policy in 2017 to blur visual content it deemed sensitive and to overlay the image with a simple text warning. The feature does not specify why the content has been screened.

The researchers conducted two studies of more than 200 people each time, looking at whether this approach was enough to reduce exposure to potentially distressing content, particularly for people with mental health concerns.

Professor Takarangi said more research was needed on better ways to flag negative content.

“In their current form, do the warnings do what they’re meant to do? I think the answer is ‘no’,” she said.

“Is there the potential for some kind of screening to have an impact? I think there is, we just need to work it out.”

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