The Upgrade

Why Gen Z Loves Closed Captioning

Old technology finds a surprising new application

Lance Ulanoff
Published in
4 min readJan 17, 2019

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Credit: Towfiqu Photography/Moment/Getty

“Everyone does it.”

These were the words from my college-aged daughter when I caught her lounging on our couch, streaming Friends with 24-point closed captioning on. She has no hearing impairment, and I wanted to know what she was up to.

Does “everyone” do it? My wife and I turned to Facebook and a private, nationwide group for parents with near-adult children. “Anyone else’s college student (without a hearing disability) watch TV with the closed captioning on and insist that everyone does it?” my wife posted. Seven hundred responses (and counting) later, we had our answer.

“It helps me with my ADHD: I can focus on the words, I catch things I missed, and I never have to go back.”

Many parents expressed similar confusion with the TV-watching habits of their millennial and Gen Z children, often followed with, “I thought it was just us.”

I returned to my daughter, who had now switched to the creepy Lifetime import You.

“Why do you have captions on?” I asked.

“It helps me with my ADHD: I can focus on the words, I catch things I missed, and I never have to go back,” she replied. “And I can text while I watch.”

My multitasking daughter used to watch TV while working on her laptop and texting or FaceTiming on her phone. She kept rewinding the DVR to catch the last few minutes she’d missed because she either zoned out or was distracted by another screen.

Her response turned out to be even more insightful than I realized at first. A number of mental health experts I spoke with — and even one study I found — supported the notion that watching with closed captioning serves a valuable role for those who struggle with focus and listening.

“I do see this a lot in my practice,” said Dr. Andrew Kent, an adolescent psychiatrist practicing in New York and Medical Director of New York START, Long Island. “I believe auditory processing is more easily impacted upon by distractions, and that they need to read [captions] to stay focused.”

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Lance Ulanoff
OneZero

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.