First there were the creaky knees and a newly sprouted chin hair (her name’s Gertrude). Now, my journey from carefree youth to cranky middle-age has taken on a new element: I’ve started to watch TV with subtitles on. I don’t know whether it’s my ageing ear, sound mixing or modern acting techniques, but actors seem to mumble a lot these days. And the background noise is often way louder than the dialogue. Not as loud as the ads, though. Those are, by design, significantly louder than the shows.
Turns out I’m not quite over the hill yet: my TV-watching habits are all the rage among kids these days. A study last November found that four out of five viewers aged between 18 and 25 said they use subtitles “all or part of the time” compared with only a quarter of those aged between 56 and 75. There are various reasons for this, including the fact that the likes of Netflix have opened up the availability of non-English-language programming (which is one of the best things about streaming services), and have helped normalise subtitles for people who aren’t hard of hearing.
There is also, of course, the fact that many of us now watch television while simultaneously staring at our phones. As one young person stated, in a recent piece titled “How generation Z became obsessed with subtitles”, captions allow people to “flick their eyes up and read ahead, then take in the whole scene quickly, and look back down at their phone”. I’m not a gen-Zer, but I’m guilty as charged.
Subtitles are also starting to become a creative medium in themselves, as the much-memed captions for Netflix’s Stranger Things demonstrate. The team behind descriptors such as “tentacles undulating moistly”, “wet footsteps squelch” and “unearthly susurration”, have said they worked hard to give hearing-impaired audiences a more immersive experience – but they’ve also added a fun new dimension for everyone else. Which is a good reminder that increasing accessibility is a win for everyone.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist