Aug 20, 2023 - Technology

Why young people can't get enough of subtitles

an illustration of static overlaid with subtitles

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

It's a controversial moment for anyone watching a show or movie together: Subtitles or no subtitles? For most young people, it's an easy choice.

Why it matters: TikTok helped normalize captions for young media consumers, who are turning regularly to subtitles as part of their streaming habits.

  • More than half of Gen Z and millennial media consumers prefer subtitles, according to new survey results from YPulse.
  • While subtitles haven't always been seen as a first choice, they've grown in ubiquity — especially with the rise of online videos that include automatic captioning.

By the numbers: 59% of Gen Z survey respondents and 52% of millennials said they use subtitles.

  • Gen Z males, especially, are watching with subtitles — 61% said they like to use them.
  • Millennials are using subtitles while watching with their children, per YPulse.

Between the lines: Captions help watchers keep up with murmuring dialogue, distinguish thick accents and get a head start on a scene, the survey found.

  • "Watching content with closed captions can reportedly improve literacy, vocabulary, and the speed of reading," YPulse said.

What they're saying: "I have two chances of being able to tell what they said in a scene," Natalie Cummings, 19, told Axios.

  • While her mom doesn't totally get the practice, the junior at Ohio University turns them on for everything she watches, saying it helps improve focus.

Subtitles are a lifeline for Erika Gesualdo, 41, while watching TV. With ADHD and auditory processing disorder, she gets easily distracted otherwise.

  • Over the past two decades, the dialogue has gotten more accurate, and text to describe sounds has become more specific, said Gesualdo, who lives in Maryland.
  • Deaf and hard of hearing content creators advocated for automatic caption tools.

Of note: Watching foreign-language TV shows and movies with English subtitles made the feature mainstream for young watchers.

  • "These gens are interested in entertainment from around the world, thanks to the global platforms they've grown up with access to," YPulse said.
  • But young people are using captions even for content in English.
  • Companies are now putting resources into making them descriptive, YPulse said.

Meanwhile, maintaining quality sound has been a challenge in the streaming era, the New York Times reported.

  • Watchers could be turning to subtitles because they are simply not catching dialogue.

What's next: Accuracy of captions still has to improve for true accessibility, said Howard A. Rosenblum, the CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.

  • Sometimes, primarily English content will show [Speaking foreign language] when a character is speaking another language.
  • Song lyrics are also usually also omitted from captions, which "forces a disparity in viewing experience," Rosenblum said.

Go deeper: Americans prefer subtitles to dubbing for foreign-language content

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