Beyond the blur: The empirical basis of Instagram’s sensitive-content screens

Author: Erin Simister

Simister, Erin, 2024 Beyond the blur: The empirical basis of Instagram’s sensitive-content screens, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Instagram, along with other social media platforms, blur sensitive images and provide a warning—with the intention to minimise harm—but there is no empirical basis for these sensitive-content screens. My thesis aimed to address existing research gaps by examining behavioural and emotional responses (e.g., anxiety) to sensitive-content screens, before investigating adaptions to improve their utility as a harm minimisation tool.

First, I developed a simulated Instagram image-viewing task and gave participants the opportunity to uncover sensitive-content screens (Chapters 3, 4 and 5). I found most participants, including vulnerable people (e.g., with higher rates of depression), uncovered the first sensitive-content screen they saw, and many participants repeatedly uncovered screens. Participants also reported their emotional reactions to sensitive-content screens and the forewarned content (Chapters 5 and 6). Consistent with existing research, I found sensitive-content screens created a noxious anticipatory period that did not translate to an emotional benefit when participants viewed the forewarned content. Together, these findings suggest sensitive-content screens do not deter people from viewing sensitive content or help them emotionally prepare for it.

Second, I explored the reasons underpinning people’s uncovering behaviour. I first developed a questionnaire based on existing theory and related literature (e.g., on uncertainty; Chapter 3). Participants rated their endorsement with items (e.g., “I uncovered the screened image(s) because I was eager to learn what the image was”), and I ran principal component analyses to identify the key uncovering reasons—information seeking behaviour, positive and negative affect driven behaviour, and avoidance behaviour. I then focused on information seeking behaviour because it was the most strongly endorsed; I manipulated the amount of content-related information on sensitive-content screens to examine whether screens prompt uncovering behaviour (Chapter 4). Consistent with this idea, I found participants uncovered screens most often when screens appeared in their current format (i.e., without content-related information).

Finally, I investigated adaptions to improve sensitive-content screens. I first examined whether adding content-related information to sensitive-content screens reduced uncovering behaviour (Chapter 4). It did: participants uncovered sensitive-content screens least often when screens had content-related information. Importantly, I found no evidence of an emotional cost to adding brief content-related information to screens: participants reported similar anticipatory anxiety and image-related distress whether they saw sensitive-content screens with or without brief content descriptions (Chapter 5). I next examined whether providing emotion regulation instructions on sensitive-content screens reduced image-related distress (Chapter 6). They did: participants had lower image-related distress after negative images where I instructed them to use distraction and reappraisal (vs. no instructions).

Overall, my thesis provides a new and original contribution to the literature in three key ways. It demonstrates: 1) sensitive-content screens in their current format do not function as intended, 2) people uncover sensitive-content screens for different reasons, and 3) adapting sensitive-content screens can improve their utility as a harm minimisation tool. My thesis has implications. Theoretically, my findings help develop a framework for understanding how and why people respond to sensitive-content screens. Methodologically, my thesis influences how we investigate behavioural and emotional responses to warning systems. Practically, my findings suggest Instagram and social media platforms alike (e.g., TikTok) should move beyond merely warning about upcoming content. Clinically, my findings raise considerations for clinicians working with people (e.g., with depression) who seek out sensitive and potentially distressing content.

Keywords: sensitive-content screens, trigger warnings, emotion, social media

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2024
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Professor Melanie Takarangi