April 3, 2024

Study finds Netflix misses the mark by trivializing teenagers’ pain

UCalgary-led research discovers movies and TV series aimed at adolescents reinforce gender and racialized pain stereotypes
A hand scrolls through Netflix on a tablet
Researchers reviewed over 60 hours of movies and TV series on Netflix. Colourbox

Researchers at the University of Calgary and the University of Bath, U.K., are calling on Netflix to do a better job of representing the kind of pain typically experienced by 12- to 18-year-olds. A new study says the streaming channel should not emphasize stereotypes, like the heroic, stoic boy and the helpless, emotional girl who requires his rescue and prioritizes his pain and suffering.

A woman with long blonde hair, wearing a yellow dress smiles at the camera while sitting in a chair

Melanie Noel, principal investigator, is the Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair.

Janet Pliszka, Visual Hues Photography

“Media is one of the most powerful engines of influence on children’s development and could be harnessed to address pain and suffering in the world. Stories matter,” says Dr. Melanie Noel, PhD, principal investigator and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary. “Youth learn by watching and fictional stories can matter more in some cases than real-life stories.”

Researchers analyzed 60 hours of Netflix content including popular movies such as Spiderman: Homecoming, and the TV series including Stranger Things. Their study found that most of the media showed pain arising from violence and injuries, and not other kinds of pain that teens also experience in real life (e.g., medical procedures, chronic pain). They also found that most of the media showed boys and white people experiencing pain; there was a lack of pain represented in girls, gender diverse people, and people with racialized identities. 

“If we’re not showing the types of pain that adolescents might typically experience like back pain and menstrual pain, then we’re trivializing pain,” says Dr. Abbie Jordan, PhD, co-author and senior lecturer at The University of Bath. “We’re not doing a great job of enabling them to think about how to manage pain, how to talk about pain and how to show empathy when other people experience pain.”

Researchers said they would welcome the opportunity to work with Netflix and other content producers on scripts that reflect the pain this age group experiences. Adolescence is the developmental period when chronic pain often emerges, affecting one in five youth. 

“I believe understanding how pain is portrayed in popular media — the societal and cultural narratives about pain — is among the most powerful influences on children’s developing understanding of not only their pain experiences, but how they show up for others who suffer,” says Noel.

Highlights from the analysis include: 

  • Boys and a person from a racialized identity are more likely to experience pain caused by others
  • Most pain instances were witnessed by at least one observer (85 per cent). 
  • Observers had more empathy and willingness to help boy sufferers' distress than girl sufferers' distress 
  • Observers commonly responded to sufferers with criticism (24 per cent) and humour (10 per cent)
A woman with short blonde hair stand in front of a presentation

Allison Cormier presented the findings at a conference.

Allison Cormier

“Children (teens) tell us they relate more to their favourite characters than people in real life that they don’t know. So, we should hope those characters are teaching them well about how to live in the world, and in this case, what to expect for themselves and others when they hurt and suffer,” says Allison Cormier, BA’23, first author on the study. “We believe there is a real opportunity for Netflix to create stories to reflect the world we want to see: A humane, diverse, inclusive, equitable, empathic, compassionate, and caring world.”

Cormier is starting a Master of Science degree soon, specializing in school and applied child psychology. 

The research was supported by Noel’s Killam Memorial Emerging Leader Chair. Findings are published in Pain. 

With files from Communications, University of Bath.

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Melanie Noel is a professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and a member of the Alberta Children's Hospital Research InstituteOwerko CentreHotchkiss Brain Institute and The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the Cumming School of Medicine. She directs the PEAK (Pain Education, Advocacy, Knowledge) Research Lab.

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