Paper versus screens

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Does the technology that we use to read change how we read? Since as far back as the 1980s, researchers have been looking at the differences between reading on paper and reading on screens. Prior to 1992, most studies concluded that people using screens read things more slowly and remember less about what they’ve read. Since 1992, a more mixed picture has emerged.

The most recent research suggests that people prefer to use paper when they need to concentrate, but this may be changing. In the US, 20% of all books sold are now e-books and digital reading devices have developed significantly over the last 5-10 years. Nevertheless, it appears that digital devices stop people from navigating effectively and may inhibit comprehension. Screens, it seems, drain more of our mental resources and make it harder to remember what we’ve read. This is not to say that screens aren’t useful – far from it – but more needs to be done to appreciate the advantages of paper and to limit the digital downsides of screens.

One of the issues is typography. Paper books contain two domains – a right and left hand paper – from which readers orientate themselves. There is also a sense of physical progression with paper books, which allows the reader to get some sense of overall place and form a coherent mental picture of the whole text. With screens things are different.

Digital pages are more ephemeral. They literally vanish once they have been read and it is difficult to see a page or a passage in the context of the larger text. Some research (e.g. a 2013 study by Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger) suggests that this is precisely why screens often impair comprehension. It has even been suggested that operating a digital device is more mentally taxing than operating a book because screens shine light directly into a readers face causing eyestrain. A study by Erik Wastlund at Karlstad University, for example, found that reading a comprehension test on a screen increased levels of stress and tiredness versus people reading the same test on paper.

There is also the idea, rarely recognised, that people bring less mental effort to screens in the first place. A study by Ziming Lui at San Jose Sate University found that people reading on screens use a lot of shortcuts and spend time browsing or scanning for things not directly linked to the text. Another piece of research (Kate Garland/University of Leicester) makes the key point that people reading on a screen rely much more on remembering the text compared to people reading on paper who rely much more on understanding what the text means. This distinction between remembering and knowing is especially critical in education.

Research by Julia Parrish-Morris and colleagues (now at the University of Pennsylvania) found that three to five-year old children reading stories from interactive books spent much of their time being distracted by buttons and easily lost track of the narrative and what it meant. Clearly screens have considerable advantages. Convenience or fast access to information is one. For older or visually impaired readers the ability to change font size is another. But it is precisely the simplicity and uncomplicated nature of paper that makes it so special. Paper does not draw attention to itself. It does not contain hyperlinks or other forms of easy distraction and its tactile and sensory nature is not only pleasing but actually allows us to navigate and understand the text.

3 thoughts on “Paper versus screens

  1. “Frequently I think that our societies will be split in a short time (or they are already split) into two classes of citizens: those who only watch TV, who will receive pre-fabricated images and therefore prefabricated definitions of the world, without any power to critically choose the kind of information they receive, and those who know how to deal with the computer, who will be able to select and to elaborate information. This will re-establish the cultural division which existed at the time of Claude Frollo, between those who were able to read manuscripts, and therefore to critically deal with religious, scientifical or philosophical matters, and those who were only educated by the images of the cathedral, selected and produced by their masters, the literate few.

    A science fiction writer could elaborate a lot on a future world where a majority of proletarians will receive only visual communication planned by an élite of computer-literate people.

    Books will remain indispensable not only for literature, but for any circumstance in which one needs to read carefully, not only to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book.
    After having spent no more than 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need of sitting comfortably down in an armchair and reading a newspaper, and maybe a good poem. I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy but are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating.

    In my hours of optimism I dream of a computer generation which, compelled to read a computer screen, gets acquainted with reading, but at a certain moment feels unsatisfied and looks for a different, more relaxed and differently-committing form of reading.”
    — Umbert Eco 1996

  2. It’s interesting, one of my children bought themselves a tablet recently, I tried using it to read Boccaccio’s Decameron but it was a distinctly unrewarding -not to say impossible- experience…..the ‘technology’ becomes a major distraction to the process of retention, whereas the technology of ‘the book’ provides an extremely tight focus.

    “The book is like the spoon; once invented, it cannot be bettered.”

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