A recently released Pew Research study shows that young people (age 16-29) are reading more than many people think they are, and that much of what they read nowadays is on a screen rather than on paper. Most of these young people who read using a screen read on their phones or their computers rather than on eReaders.
Does it matter whether people read on a screen or on paper? Does it matter what kind of screen? Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” thought not, and once said that lovers of print are simply “confusing the plate for the food.” But others disagree, saying there’s a real difference between reading on paper and reading on screen. In a post from three years ago, I discussed some of the differences, but the new Pew study has inspired me to revisit the topic. And since research shows that people reading on a screen prefer articles with bullet points and lots of white space…
History of Print vs. Screen Debate
- Professor Alan Liu says, “Any new information medium seems to degrade reading” because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. For instance, Plato complained that writing resulted in people forgetting how to memorize; later, people in England complained that newspapers detracted from reading books. It’s no different now.
- We shouldn’t be surprised that reading on screens is evolving. Reading and writing, like all technologies, are dynamic. Until the 11th century, people wrote text without spaces between the words. Gutenberg’s printing press changed that standard, and we can expect to see even more changes in the future. We already use audiobooks. Will we eventually read in a physical way similar to the way Tom Cruise interacted with the screens in the movie “Minority Report”
Recent Developments in Screen Reading
- Early studies showed that reading on a screen was 20-30% slower than reading in print, but the difference is fading quickly as devices improve. One recent study showed that it is now only 6.2% slower to read on an iPad than in print, and just 10.7% slower using a Kindle. As far as reader preferences,
- There seems to be a big difference between the effectiveness and comfort of reading on a computer screen compared to reading on a tablet or a reading device. On a scale of 1-7, the iPad, Kindle 2, and printed book were nearly tied at 5.8, 5.7, and 5.6 respectively, while the PC monitor ranked last at 3.6 points.
- Another study showed that there was no disadvantage to comprehension between reading in print and reading on tablets and eReaders. But though the data showed no difference, the readers thought (incorrectly) that they retained more when they read using print. Another study among medical professionals showed exactly the same thing. Perception is not always reality.
- Print reading is a solitary activity, while, as writer Christine Rosen says, “Screen reading, a historically recent arrival, encourages a different kind of self-conception, one based on interaction and dependent on the feedback of others. It rewards participation and performance, not contemplation.”
Screen Reading and the Brain
- Some scientists worry that the “expert reading brain” will become obsolete and be replaced by a “Twitter brain” that is unable to sustain deep and focused attention. They are warning us to say goodbye to 19th century literature because people have no patience for it anymore. But…
- In a brand new book, authors Daniela Zambarbieri and Elena Carniglia publish research showing that eye tracking studies illustrate that their subjects’ reading behavior was similar on a desktop PC, an iPad, a Kindle, and a printed book.
- Professor Maryanne Wolf, author of “Proust and the Squid,” says, “We humans were never meant to read.” We’ve managed to do it by ingeniously using language and vision to comprehend marks on paper…or on screens. Wolf stresses the need for further research into the effects of screen reading on brain development.
The Future of Screen Reading
- There is yet no definitive research on whether reading on screen or on paper is a more enriching experience. We need many more studies on the subject to know how the brain reacts to different materials.
- Some of the very scientists who are worried about the effects of screen reading are now developing apps for the iPad. As one said, the digital world is here to stay, and “I must enter the mouth of the medium to make sure the medium itself is used to correct its flaws.”
Cindy Orr is a Library Consultant at OverDrive.