Everyone’s worried about how bad reading on screens is for our mind, but maybe there’s a solution: our brain
Whether it’s kids who can’t muster the attention to read a book or students struggling with critical thinking, society is wrestling with the unexpected consequences of our digital screen age. We are concerned by studies showing a negative relationship between reading on screens and memory (Niccoli, 2015), and research that reveals diminished attention spans and major hits to reading retention (Mangen, Walgermo, & Brønnick, 2013). In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr, a techno-evangelist who has sparked debate for decades, is worried about how the distraction inherent in our technology is compromising the way we think. He describes his own metamorphosis succinctly, stating, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr, 2010, p. 7). At the same time, we have come to depend on screens more and more. American adults spend an average of eight hours in front of computer screens (Stelter, 2009), teens just under nine hours, and tweens nearly six (Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2015). Making sense of all that information, the embarrassment of digital riches we now enjoy, requires our most robust cognitive and critical thinking—even as the very medium challenges the effectiveness of these analytical faculties. We must learn to live with screens and technology, but it cannot be at the cost of those important aspects of our intelligence. Perhaps this complex problem’s solution lies in the very nature of the human brain. It has offered solutions to a similar problem before—when we learned to read in the first place.
Maryanne Wolf begins her book, Proust and the Squid, by stating that “We were never born to read” (Wolf, 2007, p. 3). Put another way, there is no pre-programmed reading circuit in the human brain. We each must build our own through an epic undertaking spanning years of trial and error, requiring enormous mental focus and saintly patience from grown ups. It’s a feat made all the more wondrous by the fact that most of us forget what a rough journey it was. From a neurological point of view, becoming literate involves cobbling together pieces of the brain that originally processed other kinds of information (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011). We must bend circuitry for things like language and pattern recognition to a novel task that they were never meant to accomplish. In effect, as pre-literate children, we are Dr. Frankensteins, captivated by the miracle of reading we see all around us, wanting nothing more than to create our own reading monsters. Luckily, we can take advantage of perhaps the greatest genetically encoded talent we possess—we can rewire our brains.
Our brains are amazingly plastic (Neville & Bavelier, 2000). They can form completely new connections between structures to process and store information using a technique that we matter-of-factly call ‘learning’. When applied to literacy, the brain recruits disparate regions to transform a set of scribbles into an ordered set of symbols that we then recognize as words. This has remarkable implications for how we process not just written words, but also how we process the medium used to deliver those words. Instead of relying on connections formed to process print, our brains might be able to form processes devoted to reading text on screens. So perhaps it isn’t an unreasonable leap to suggest that we can learn to read screens better—with heightened retention, focused cognition, and for nuanced meaning.
Research focused on which reading format is ‘better’ for us has been inconclusive. One study finds that participants have worse retention on screens than in print, while another finds there’s really no statistical difference between the two. One likely reason for this discrepancy is the difficulty in identifying and isolating variables in research—of making sure that we’re not comparing apples to oranges, so to speak. These days, researchers understand that text length has a strong connection with media and retention—a relatively recent finding (Mangen et al., 2013). We’re also learning that what we’re hoping to get out of the text has something to do with our preferred reading medium (Velde & Ernst, 2009). There are a million other variables that researchers must contend with—reading ability, reader experience, font size, device size and functionality, the correlation between lighted screens and sleeping disorders, and user experience are just a few more of the more obvious ones. And that’s before addressing important socioeconomic factors that contribute to choosing print or screen versions of reading materials, like cost and access.
But while we’re trying to figure out the baselines for comparing different media, digital natives are coming up with coping strategies. Younger generations who’ve grown up immersed in a screen fed culture recognize that screens are a good medium for shorter, more straightforward text, while absorbing meaning from longer prosaic texts requires the closer, more focused analysis that print enables (Chan, Poe, Potter, Quigley, & Wilson, 2011). As students who read to learn, digital natives begin to figure out which tools strengthen their learning, and as their education progresses through college, their attitudes surrounding reading on screens grow more positive (Mizrachi, 2015). Publishers and instructors are also learning what works for students. By rethinking how videos and other interactive features are presented, they hope to limit distractions, facilitating a more effect learning experience for students (Herold, 2014). These strategies are working for this era’s readers. The evidence suggests that digital natives do in fact cope with reading on screens better than previous generations (Mizrachi, 2015).
While there are real perils associated with reading on screens, it’s a medium that has put a healthy fraction of the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips. It’s safe to assume that reading on screens is going to stick around for a while, even if its final price tag in terms of our intelligence is as yet unknown. The first step in identifying the true price of processing information on screens is to understand thoroughly how we learn to read in the first place. Then we can begin to develop further strategies that take advantage of how our brain works—to get the most out of our information age without losing the deep and meaningful benefits we derive from reading printed material.
Carr, N. G. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton.
Chan, L., Poe, F., Potter, M., Quigley, B., & Wilson, J. (2011). UC Libraries Academic e-Book Usage Survey Report: Springer e-Book Pilot Project, (May), 34. Retrieved from http://www.cdlib.org/services/uxdesign/docs/2011/academic_ebook_usage_survey.pdf
Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Herold, B. (2014). Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students - Education Week. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/05/07/30reading_ep.h33.html
Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61–68. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002
Media Use by Tweens and Teens. (2015) (Vol. I). Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/the-common-sense-census-media-use-by-tweens-and-teens
Mizrachi, D. (2015). Undergraduates’ Academic Reading Format Preferences and Behaviors. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(3), 301–311. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2015.03.009
Neville, H. J., & Bavelier, D. (2000). Specificity and Plasticity in Neurocognitive Development in Humans. In The New Cognitive Neurosciences (Vol. 2nd, pp. 83–98).
Stelter, B. (2009). Adults Spend 8 Hours a Day in Front of a Screen, Study Finds. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/business/media/27adco.html?_r=0
Velde, W. Van Der, & Ernst, O. (2009). The future of eBooks? Will print disappear? An end-user perspective. Library Hi Tech, 27(4), 570–583. http://doi.org/10.1108/07378830911007673
Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. New York, NY: Harper.