Filter, read, learn: the puzzle of reading print vs screen

reading print vs screenI have read almost a dozen articles in the past few days that attempt to puzzle out the new hot question: do our brains process screen text differently from paper text? Does reading too much online somehow ‘ruin’ our brains for long-form reading?

I’ll state at the outset that from everything I’ve read on this, science does not have a definitive verdict on reading print vs screen, so I can’t answer these questions. What I can do is apply my own decently well-educated common sense filter to some of the things I’m reading and come to my own conclusion.

Firstly, this one from the New York Times. From the article:

“In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, the Schugars discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.”

This actually rings true to me. In a review I myself wrote for Teleread way back in 2012 on an interactive ebook app, I highlighted this very danger. The app had fallen into the trap of paper replication, so that sentences were rendered as they had been in the print edition, and not chunked to prevent splitting across screens. This forced kids to either abandon the interactive elements so they could finish the sentence first, or to abandon the story so that they could play with the interactive illustrations. I do think that’s a legitimate criticism, and that app makers should consider it going forward.

Then there was this one, from the Washington Post:

“To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

This one, I am not so sure about. Speaking anecdotal, I do think my skimming skills are much improved. I can go through a 500-link Feedly scan during my morning commute, and be ready to send Juli the morning links when I get to work. But I do also choose to read long-form novels, and my ability to do so is undiminished.

To make another analogy, think of a person who plays more than one sport. Does their ability in one sport negatively affect their ability in another one? During the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Canada’s flag bearer—who them went on to medal during those games—was Clara Hughes, the first Canadian athlete to medal in both the summer and winter Olympic games. Clearly, her acquisition of a second sport, cycling, left her speed skating ability undiminished.

If the reader quoted in the story is choosing to skim as opposed to deep read, isn’t that a conscious choice on her part? She is, to continue the analogy, choosing to abandon one sport in favour of a new one. Doesn’t she have the option to choose to practice both?

4 Comments on Filter, read, learn: the puzzle of reading print vs screen

  1. I expect that within 10 years or so an ereader screen will be indistinguishable from a sheet of paper attached (for example) to a clipboard.

    The ereader screen will be as white and non-glare as paper, the ereader text will be as black as printers ink, and the ereader screen resolution will be as high as a paper book’s resolution.

    At that point, the entire paper vs electronic debate becomes irrelevant.

    What will still be relevant will be ‘immersive’ reading vs ‘distracted’ reading.

    If you are reading on an electronic device, there will be ever increasing numbers of distractions available, such as surfing the net, checking email, etc. and some will chose to alternate reading a chapter of a book and doing something else. In my opinion, this will be neither good nor bad, but simply “different” from what we did before.

  2. How readers respond to a poorly formed eBook predicts very little about how students will respond to a well formed eBook which is what we really want to know.
    Reporters seldom take the time or have the expertise to discern good research from bad. Methodology, statistics and logic have to be closely examined and that takes time and expertise. Even where expertise is present, time is not something that reporters have enough of.
    Truth is a casualty of deadlines more often than a casualty of war.

  3. It can be said that reading a screen book is the same as reading a paper book. Many e-book advocates say so. At the same time advocates say said that screen books have many advantages, or that they are different. OK; they are the same and they are different. What’s the fuss? Publishers sell both formats and they let the readers decide. They price the formats according to demand…

  4. My attention span is in the toilet due to the whole internet/tablet reading experience in general. I have a hard time sitting down and actually reading a full length book anymore, whether in paper or on an ereader/tablet. As much as I love the technology (I’m 66 and have been involved with computers since 1968!), I hate what has changed in me and I long for the old days when I could curl up with a book in a nice easy chair for hours.

    To summarize, I don’t think it’s a problem of the screen versus paper text – it is this electronic monster we have developed which has sped up time x10. The huge mass of information available and the way information is presented in the electronic form in general fosters short attention spans.


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