Netflix trivialising teenagers’ pain - new study

This is the first time research has examined how pain is portrayed on Netflix
This is the first time research has examined how pain is portrayed on Netflix

New analysis of adolescent TV and film on Netflix suggests that too often it shows misleading depictions of pain.

  • Published on Thursday 28 March 2024
  • Last updated on Thursday 4 April 2024

New analysis of adolescent TV and film on Netflix suggests that too often it shows misleading depictions of pain, portraying pain as something arising only through a violent act or injury. Instead of trivialising the experience it could do more to educate young people about much more common, everyday pain.

Adolescents watching popular Netflix shows such as Stranger Things and Sex Education or films such as Spiderman:Homecoming, are exposed to an average of 10 incidents of pain every hour, according to new research from psychologists in Canada and the UK.

A new study in the international journal Pain led by researchers at The University of Calgary (Canada) alongside researchers at The University of Bath (UK- analysed how characters’ experiences of pain were depicted across different media aimed at 12 to 18-year-olds. The team behind the research were interested in assessing what painful incidents characters experienced as well as how the characters themselves and others around them responded to painful incidents.

This is the first time research has examined how pain is portrayed in adolescent media, despite adolescence being the developmental period when chronic pain typically emerges.

Their analysis looked at 10 trending / popular films and six television series from 2015 in North America, featuring adolescent protagonists. They include Sex Education, Stranger Things, Enola Holmes and To All The Boys I Loved Before.

Over the 10 films and six television series (which equated to over 60 hours of footage), the researchers identified:

  • 732 painful incidents - a mean of 10.24 incidents of pain per hour.
  • Violent pain or injury being the most common type of pain depicted occurring in more than half of instances (57 %).
  • Boy characters more likely to experience pain in comparison with girl characters (77%).
  • Boys often portrayed as heroic figures coming to the rescue, being twice as likely than girls to help sufferers.
  • Girls were often portrayed as being more emotional than boys in response to witnessing pain.
  • White characters depicted as pain sufferers more often than characters with a racialized identity. (78% white characters suffering pain, compared to 22% racialized characters suffering pain).
  • When a person from a racialized identity experienced pain, they were more likely to experience pain caused by another person (80%).

  • Examples of everyday pain (e.g. a character falling over or bumping their knee) and chronic-type pain (i.e., headache, abdominal pain, back ache), being much less common, (represented in only 21% and less than 1 % of incidents respectively.)
  • A general lack of empathy from other characters in responding to pain. They commonly responded to sufferers with criticism (24%) and humour (10%).

Dr Melanie Noel of the Department of Psychology at The University of Calgary, who led the research, explains why this research matters:

"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. Fictional stories can matter more in some cases than real-life stories. So, let’s create stories to reflect the world we want to see: A humane, diverse, inclusive, equitable, compassionate, and caring world."

Dr. Abbie Jordan of the Department of Psychology and Centre for Pain Research at The University of Bath emphasises the importance of accurately representing pain experiences:

"If we’re not showing the types of pain that adolescents might typically experience like back pain and menstrual pain, then we’re trivialising pain. 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. This research matters because if every film and television series shows a boy being a "tough guy" when they experience pain and a girl as a "damsel in distress" in need of saving, they might think they have to be like that in real life. This depiction reinforces old-fashioned ideas about gender and is misleading."

The lack of empathy displayed by characters in the media could also play out in real life. Research suggests that when people see kindness in media, they start mirroring this behaviour themselves. On the flip side, watching violent painful acts can make people care less about others’ pain.

The study also highlights the need for more realistic depictions of pain and diverse representations of pain sufferers. Dr. Jordan explains the findings:

"Sadly, we anticipated an overrepresentation of pain in white individuals compared with people of colour, highlighting the underrepresentation of pain in marginalised groups. Our findings really highlight the importance of pain researchers working with the media to find better ways to represent the experience of pain and how individuals respond to pain in others, particularly around marginalised groups."

The findings echo a previous study examining how young children’s (aged 4-6 years) pain is portrayed in popular media.

Now the researchers are calling on Netflix listen to their findings. Dr. Noel said:

"I want Netflix to take this seriously and get excited and inspired to directly influence millions of children around the world. They have a monumental opportunity to influence the compassion and humanity we see in our children and our future world."

Dr. Jordan said:

"We would love to work collaboratively with Netflix and movie/television creators on increasing the representation of girls and people of colour in instances where pain is experienced and start a dialogue around how to more realistically respond to pain in others, thinking about pro-social behaviours and displaying empathy."