homepage logo

Tech Matters: More than half of Americans use video subtitles — here’s why

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Aug 16, 2023

Photo supplied

Leslie Meredith

Today, just over half of Americans watch content with subtitles most of the time. The use of this feature has expanded beyond the bounds of those with hearing issues and those who are watching movies in a language other than their primary one. To understand the trend, let’s take a close look at a survey of 1,500 Americans by Preply, an online language tutor service. You will be surprised by some of the findings and discover how turning on subtitles could benefit you.

According to the survey, 58% of respondents use subtitles more frequently than they did just a year ago. Women are more likely to use subtitles than men. And, 1 in 4 viewers always have subtitles turned on. That figure increases to 1 in 3 when people watch a show together. Most surprisingly, the group that uses subtitles most of the time is the youngest: 68% of Gen Z viewers who are between the ages of 11 and 26, while only 41% of baby boomers use subtitles most of the time. Netflix was the top-cited streaming platform in this survey.

Seventy percent of Americans use subtitles to better understand actors with accents, and find Scottish accents the hardest to understand. Think of the actors in the popular series “Outlander” and the ogre in “Shrek.” British accents also pose difficulties for some viewers, like those heard in “Bridgerton” and “The Crown.”

A majority of viewers said it’s harder to hear dialogue in shows and movies than it used to be because of background music. In addition to turning on subtitles, you should also check to see if your smart TV has what’s usually called Clear Voice, which makes voices more distinct. In the LG version, you can set it to auto control or make the adjustment manually. To check, go into your TV’s settings and look for “Sound,” “Sound Mode” and then “Clear Voice.” If your TV has surround sound, turning it off may help.

Subtitles are also used by those trying to learn a new language or concept. Preply’s tutor Martin suggested students should first listen to a movie with no subtitles and try to identify or guess words. Next, he said learners could note the timecodes when they could not hear the words and then replay those sections with subtitles. He also said dialogue can be helpful in learning natural expressions. “The student could pause the film during the conversation and try to predict the reply from one of the characters.”

Netflix and similar streaming services are not the only type of online content experiencing a surge in the popularity of subtitles. Both YouTube and TikTok are seeing the same phenomenon. For instance, 46% of viewers on these platforms prefer watching videos with subtitles, and 61% report that subtitles are at least somewhat important in shaping their social media viewing experience.

Again, a higher proportion of women (54%) favor subtitles online compared to men (36%) and half of Gen Z prefers subtitles, closely followed by millennials at 49%, Gen X at 44% and baby boomers at 35%. Unlike streaming platforms, 1 in 6 viewers prefer to watch with the sound off and 29% of survey respondents said they’d skip a video that didn’t have subtitles. The most likely explanation for this behavior is viewers watching in public places where earbuds might look suspicious, say at work.

If you are a creator, what does all of this mean for you? Because the popularity of subtitles is growing, you should consider adding them to your content. Both YouTube and TikTok offer auto-captioning, which is done through machine learning algorithms. YouTube recommends creators add professional captions first because while YouTube is constantly improving its speech recognition technology, automatic captions might misrepresent the spoken content due to mispronunciations, accents, dialects or background noise. You should always review automatic captions and edit any parts that haven’t been properly transcribed.

The same holds true for TikTok, but it seems to be much more of a problem on this platform. It is clear that many creators are not editing the auto transcriptions, making for sometimes hilarious text. Another issue with TikTok captions is their placement. I’ve seen many videos with subtitles that run behind the account name and description. Attention to detail and taking the time to edit will go a long way in improving your views.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.


Join thousands already receiving our daily newsletter.

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)