Ads you scroll by online are supposed to make you feel “I need that.” But what if the product or service you’re getting advertised is something you do want, but really can’t, or shouldn’t have? What if you’re trying desperately not to want or think about whatever is being advertised to you? What if an ad brings up a terrible memory?
Ads that elicit these complex emotions may fall under the umbrella of what technology companies call “sensitive topics.” They could be ads about pregnancy and fertility, weight loss, dating, money, or more. Like women who are served ads for baby products after experiencing a miscarriage, sensitive topics could bring up negative emotions, turning an ordinary scroll session into an emotional blindside.
“It’s unsolicited and that, I can imagine, can feel very intrusive,” clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, says.
Can just seeing an advertisement for something that’s a sensitive topic for you really have an impact? Dr. Sperling explains that images in particular can actually be a powerful sensory jog to your memory, and the associated emotions. “Visual stimuli can activate memories, experiences, and a bunch of thoughts and feelings for people,” she says. They can even lead to feelings of being unsafe, which may activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to a fight, flight, or freeze response.
“Ads can affect someone’s mood, particularly if they’re personally relevant,” Sperling says. If you linger on or otherwise interact with a post on a certain topic, personalized advertising platforms will get the message to send you ads related to that topic—even if they’re ones we ultimately don’t want to engage with.
There is a way to avoid this conundrum that is a bit of a double edged sword, however. Internet platforms have been rolling out tools that allow you to tell the platform not to show you something on a particular topic. But this generally involves opting into personalized advertising in the first place.
How to filter triggering ads so you don’t see them anymore
On Google, you can go to the “My Ad Center,” and you’ll be able to select topics you don’t want to see advertised to you. Ads about alcohol and gambling are automatically filtered out, unless you specifically opt in to them.
On Instagram, you can’t filter by sensitive topic, but you can choose to see “more,” “standard,” or “less” of ads Instagram considers “sensitive.” This could include, for example, weight loss advertisements. You can make that choice under Settings > Account > Sensitive Content Control in the app. You can also always click the three dots in the top right corner of the ad and click “hide ad.”
TikTok doesn’t have controls, but it automatically filters out content it deems to be sensitive by blurring it out in searches and in the “for you” page. You can choose to skip or “watch anyway.” When you’re served an ad you don’t want to see, you can also long click or click on the share button and choose the “not interested” option.
Dr. Sperling thinks the idea of setting these controls could be valuable, if you’re going on social media and noticing that you come out feeling worse than you did before. One way to assess this is to rate your mood on a scale of 1–10 before opening up an app or a browser, and then re-rating yourself when you get offline. Then try that exercise again after setting controls.
“Curate your newsfeed so that you don’t see certain experiences anymore,” Dr. Sperling says. “Re-rate your mood before and after, know how you’re using it and if you start to realize that it’s making you feel, not as sad, angry or worried. Maybe you see like, okay, maybe these adjustments are making the impact.”
However, if your mood does deteriorate from getting online, that’s the time to prioritize your well-being, and ask yourself some questions about what’s going on inside that’s making the experience unpleasant or uncomfortable. “Notice how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are connected,” Dr. Sperling says. “When you notice those connections, then you are empowered to then work on them.”
While filters may be a good way to avoid triggering moments online, you can’t filter out, well, life. So Dr. Sperling recommends that if there is a topic that really sets you on edge, you may want to seek out therapy to help you navigate those moments where you do encounter a sensitive topic.
“There are things that come our way of which we have control,” she says. “There are different ways that one may approach life experiences than one may approach the social media world.”