If you're worried that your kiddo is getting too much screen time and not enough reading time, closed captions might actually be the answer, according to a new campaign.

By Maressa Brown
photo illustration of families watching tv with various closed captions
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (6)

No matter how many screen time rules you've set for your kids, there are inevitably moments when those rules require a bit of bending or even breaking. And in those moments, allowing kids a few extra minutes of screen time can feel like a parenting fail, but you're not alone. Technology overuse ranked as the #1 fear of parents of teenagers in a 2018 national survey from The Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. And there's even more reason to take heart: That technology use isn't necessarily detrimental. In fact, from an educational standpoint, it can be quite the opposite.

National public media literacy initiative Reading Rockets notes that closed captions can "help boost foundational reading skills, such as phonics, word recognition, and fluency, for a number of students." The organization also points out that subtitles on TV shows, movies, and video games will expose kids to many more hours of written words than they might otherwise see, especially if they're struggling readers who are avoiding books and other printed media.

A new campaign aims to support this argument in an effort to combat global youth illiteracy. An organization called TOTS (Turn On The Subtitles), alongside various universities and charities, is working to encourage broadcasters, online entertainment providers, and policymakers all over the world to make same-language closed captions mandatory on their video content.

TOTS points to a long-term study from India that showed 70% of school children who were unable to read a single word of Hindi when the study began, but they gained the necessary literacy skills to become competent readers by the end when exposed to closed caption content in Hindi for one hour each-day. At the same time, 34% of children who were exposed to less of the same content gained adequate reading skills.

Closed captions boost literacy, because kids track words with their eyes and then recognize the words through sounds, according to TOTS co-founder, Henry Warren. "Once kids can decode five words or more, they do start reading along," he told The Guardian.

This is far from the first time there's been buzz about the assertion that closed captions and subtitles could help kids learn how to read. In the LifeProTips subreddit in 2013, one parent, writing under the handle Ragezhard, wrote, "I turned the subtitles on when my oldest son started watching Sprout, Nick Jr. and Noggin, and he is excellent with his verbal and spelling skills. I have also done this with my youngest, and he is on the same path. Many kids shows repeat the same words and those words will also be seen by the child equally as much. My sons do not have to sound words out to spell them they can just recall what it looked like."

Meanwhile, memes, like a viral one created by author Renee Charytan, reassure parents that as long as the subtitles are on, kids are learning.

Charytan's meme might have initially sparked smirks and chuckles from parents, but judging from TOTS' findings and this new push for more subtitled screen time, there might actually be truth to it after all.