Data on subtitles usage belies falling attention spans claim

  •   4 min reads
Data on subtitles usage belies falling attention spans claim

If attention spans are falling, why do younger Netflix viewers prefer subtitles?

"Kids today, they don't have the attention spans we have," say a chorus of voices from older generations. But is that really true? Drill down, and evidence to suggest millennials and generation Z have poor attention spans is weak. Evidence to suggest we all have diminished attention spans is nuanced. And now a survey comes along finding that younger viewers of TV shows are more likely to watch shows with subtitles than older viewers.

Here is the big problem with the claim attention spans are diminishing— it seems to be something older generations always say. When the author was a kid, they said it about TV. "We listened to the radio," said my parents, "and you had to use your imagination and concentrate. You kids, it's all there on a plate, it's too easy, you are becoming lazy."

I wonder what older generations thought when my parents stayed glued to the radio.

Read a book by Dickens — the complex, meandering sentences. Take this one:

I challenge you to read it all and not scan it.

"In the year 1775, there stood upon the borders of Epping Forest, at a distance of about twelve miles from London–measuring from the Standard in Cornhill,' or rather from the spot on or near to which the Standard used to be in days of yore–a house of public entertainment called the Maypole; which fact was demonstrated to all such travellers as could neither read nor write (and at that time a vast number both of travellers and stay-at-homes were in this condition) by the emblem reared on the roadside over against the house, which, if not of those goodly proportions that Maypoles were wont to present in olden times, was a fair young ash, thirty feet in height, and straight as any arrow that ever English yeoman drew." That is the first sentence from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.

Before we learned to read, we had to listen — we congregated in Church and learned passages from the Bible. Then, the storyteller came to town, and we say around a fire, listening. You couldn't replay anything the storyteller said — that required concentration.

The evidence of falling attention spans

Quoted from Living in the Age of the Jerk

According to media reports, a survey by Microsoft found that the average human attention span decreased from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds in 2013. - "One second shorter than a goldfish!" cite the media reports.
It is just that the media reports were not strictly accurate. In fact, the Microsoft study quoted The Statistic Brain website, which, according to Simon Maybin, from the BBC's More or Less Programme, the sources for these numbers were quite vague.
Mr Maybin quoted one academic who specialises in attention in drivers and witnesses to crime. She said that the idea of an "average attention span" is pretty meaningless. "It's very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."
That's the problem; many of the people who say evidence shows digital technology reduces attention spans are themselves applying limited attention to detail.

Attention spans: Quality over quantity

Perhaps there is nuance at play here.

According to a study from Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Univers the issue isn't so much poor attention spans but a cognitive limit to how much information we can hold. And these days, we are hit with so much information that a natural consequence is that we can't take it all in. Maybe we absorb more general information but less in-depth. It is like we are becoming generalists.

Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Compute said: "It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has indeed become more difficult to keep up to date on the news cycle, for example."

Then along comes a report from Stagetext, which finds four out five people aged 18-25, say they use subtitles for some of the time when viewing TV shows. By contrast, 23 per cent of those aged between 56 and 75 said they use subtitles.

Indeed, there is a strong correlation with age — 64 per cent of 26 to 35-year-olds, 55 per cent of 36 to 45-year-olds and 37 per cent of 46 to 55-year-olds occasionally select subtitles.

It may have something to do with the nature of the content; of course, as a general role, Squid Games was more popular with a younger audience — and here is a confession, your truly watched Squid Games dubbed, listening to relatively poor voice-overs.

The BBC quoted Stagetext's chief executive Melanie Sharpe saying: "Older people often feel like subtitles require an 'extra concentration level' when watching foreign-language productions.

She added: "I think young people can take in far more information quickly because they're used to it."

So there you have it. Older people don't have the concentration span for subtitles.

Maybe it just boils down to nuance — it is better in some respects and worse in others. Or, as Dickens said: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

Dickens was talking about a time just before the French Revolution, but he could just as easily have been talking about the 2020s — maybe Dickens was an early Techopian.

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