Watching films on a small screen has an impact on comprehension and immersion

How does the experience of watching a film on a smartphone differ from watching it on the big screen in a cinema? This has been investigated in an experiment and the findings indicate that the viewing situation has an impact on comprehension and immersion in the film’s narrative, and even on the viewer’s empathy with the fictional characters as well.

It is becoming more and more common to watch films on smartphones, but very little research has been done about the experience of watching a film on smartphones. In her film studies thesis at the University of Gothenburg, doctoral student Kata Szita has combined methods of media theory and behavioural science to study film experience, film consumption and interactive spectatorship, and also viewing films in environments that were not originally intended for this.

“What is special about experiencing films on smartphones is that smartphones have very few social, temporal or spatial restrictions,” says Kata Szita.

Or in other words, in principle you can watch a film on your smartphone wherever you are and whenever you like, without being limited to a specific place or specific time period.

Behavioural science experiment

Part of the thesis work consisted of a behavioural science experiment the purpose of which was to compare film experience on smartphones in environments that can be subject to distractions, with film experience in front of a big screen in cinema-like spaces.

“The experiment measured attention, narrative comprehension and immersion through eye tracking and electrodermal activity measures, self-evaluation, and a narrative comprehension test.

The results showed that the viewing situation did have an impact on some of the variables: comprehension, immersion, and empathy with the film’s characters.

Millennials

The fact that screen size and external stimuli — various forms of distractions — did not have an impact on all the variables can be explained by the experiment participants all belonging to the millennial generation (people born from the early 1980s to the end of the 1990s) who are used to smartphones and this way of viewing films,” says Kata Szita.

“For them, watching a film on a smartphone screen is just as comfortable, pleasant and effective as viewing it on the big screen.”

The experiment showed that viewers can compensate for the smartphone’s small screen by setting a desired position and by making temporary adjustments to ensure an uninterrupted viewing experience. But vie smartphone film viewers are still susceptible to distractions, depending on the characteristics of those distractions. Distracting sound or visual effects distance the viewer from the film and disrupt the feeling of presence in the film’s narrative. Although smartphone users have adopted a strategy to filter out stimuli not related to the film, they become aware of distracting stimuli if those require immediate attention or some type of reaction.

The changing media landscape

Kata Szita’s thesis also highlights the rapidly changing media landscape and provides a foundation for further film studies and media research addressing the potential consequences of this changing media landscape.

“New trends in film consumption and the increasing time that people spend in front of screens can have long-term effects on learning, imagination and cognitive development, and it must be continuously researched,” says Kata Szita.

Thesis title: Smartphone Cinematics: A Cognitive Study of Smartphone Spectatorship was publicly defended on 13th September.

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