The Science and Feelings Behind Reading on Screens vs. Paper

Are you, and possibly your studies, being harmed by your interaction with computers? Read on to learn what the research says.

Stop for a second and think about how many screens you look at each day. Your phone, your computer, maybe an e-reader or a TV. Then there are digital advertisements and billboards, movie screens, projectors in school. That’s a non-trivial number of screens. Now how long do you think you spend staring at those screens? It’s probably a non-trivial amount of time too. How does all that screen time affect how you retain the information you’re seeing? How does it affect the way you think? Even the way you see?

Researchers have been investigating our interaction with screens and computer devices for decades. From the earliest stages of widespread computer use, science has tagged along, attempting to put its finger on the suspicions that haunt even the most staunch digital literacy advocate: are we being harmed by our interaction with computers? A specific strain of this research has grabbed the attention of many, especially as the many branches of the educational system, from K-12 to university and graduate levels, all have begun to embrace digital literature and learning materials.

Since the 1980s, researchers have looked closely at human-screen interaction, but the results of these studies have remained generally inconclusive. Analysis of test subjects’ ability to recall and comprehend the texts they were given to read off a screen showed only vague differences from paper versions, and results often conflicted. Many of these kinds of experiments have also been criticized for either a lack of scientific rigor or an inability to recreate optimal reading conditions from which to draw conclusions.

However, experience seems to betray continual problems with reading from screens, from difficulty recalling what one has read to eye fatigue to impacting one’s sleeping habits to a confusingly general sense of dissatisfaction. What then should we make of this? When reading a brief blog, it may not make a difference to your comprehension, but screens may have a bigger impact on vision and retention as required long-form digital reading, from textbooks to novels, becomes more prevalent in classrooms as well as in leisure reading.

phone animated GIF

Some have suggested that what computer-generated text lacks is a certain topography, giving an advantage to paper text. Apparently, an intrinsic part of our reading process is our memory of place within the text. Without the tactile cues that come from holding a certain bundle of pages between one’s fingers or understanding where on the page one read a certain passage, recall and comprehension is compromised.

This lack of orientation that we experience while reading a digital text is further exasperated by our ability to use a search function for specific pieces of entered data. The text loses all sense of place entirely as we are teleported from one arbitrary location in the text to another, with no other navigational aid other than the scroll bar on the side of the screen or the page count in the corner. No longer constrained to the inner logic and narrative path of the text, the reader assumes control where they should really be relinquishing it, learning as the author intended they learn, rather than vivisecting the work and extracting only the most necessary tidbits.

What then, should a student do? If you find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of time spent glued to an electronic screen—and with little to show for it—an easy first step is to diversify your learning materials. Use conversation with classmates, tangible books and paper, and online learning materials together rather than opting exclusively for digital texts and the newest smartphone app, and you may find you retain more information. Regarding the physical health ramifications, when conducting extended reading on a screen, rest your eyes by looking away from the device using the 20-20-20 or 60-5 plans. Rather than plug exclusively into the wonderfully tempting, strangely ethereal world of the screen, disconnect.

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About Joshua Grimm

Joshua Grimm is a recent graduate of a private four-year institution in Wisconsin, where he tutored English, eriting, and interpretation of assigned texts to undergraduate and graduate students. He is currently a tutor for Sylvan Learning.


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