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Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens

10 July 2015

From FastCompany:

Thanks to technology, we’re reading more than ever—our brains process thousands of words via text messages, email, games, social media, and web stories. According to one report, the amount people that read tripled from 1980 to the late 2000s, and it’s probably safe to say that trend continues today. But as we jam more and more words into our heads, how we read those words has changed in a fundamental way: we’ve moved from paper to screens. It’s left many wondering what we’ve lost (or gained) in the shift, and a handful of scientists are trying to figure out the answer.

. . . .

[M]any researchers say that reading onscreen encourages a particular style of reading called “nonlinear” reading—basically, skimming. In a 2005 study out of San Jose University, Ziming Liu looked at how reading behavior changed over the past decade, and found exactly this pattern. “The screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively,” Liu wrote. In the face of endless information, links, videos, and images demanding our attention, we’ve adapted our reading to fit our screens.

But this style of reading may come at a cost—Liu noted in his study that sustained attention seems to decline when people read onscreen rather than on paper, and that people also spend less time on in-depth reading. “In digital, we can link in different media, images, sound, and other text, and people can get overwhelmed,” explains Andrew Dillon, a professor at the School of Information at the University of Texas, Austin, “These are disruptive activities that can carry a cost in terms of attention.” Another study by Rakefet Ackerman Technion-Israel Institute of Technology also supports the idea that paper is sometimes less distracting than our computers. The researchers found that when people read short nonfiction onscreen, their understanding of the text suffered because people managed their time poorly compared with when they used paper (although paper’s advantage disappeared when people were given a fixed amount of time to read the text). Other studies have also found costs when people multi-task online in both efficiency and the quality of work they create (like a written report) based on their understanding of what they read.

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.” Wolf says that since humans didn’t evolve to read, we have very plastic brain circuits for this particular skill and our brains easily adapt to whatever medium we read. If we habitually browse and word-spot, Wolf explains, our brains will favor that type of reading even when we crack open Ulysses.

Link to the rest at FastCompany and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG is a pretty digital guy, but he still proofreads documents where every word has to be right on paper.

However, he reads both fiction and nonfiction books exclusively on an ereader or tablet.

Ebooks, Tablets/Ereaders

65 Comments to “Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens”

  1. I definitely skim when surfing the web, but when I turn on my Kindle ereader, I shift into book reading mode and read it just like a paper book.

    • In the face of endless information, links, videos, and images demanding our attention, we’ve adapted our reading to fit our screens.

      Links, videos and images get in the way of reading—go figure! I wonder what effect a TV set and a beer has on reading. (Study coming out soon.)

  2. As soon as I saw the word “skimming” I started skimming the article (which is unusual behavior for me when I’m reading on a screen).

  3. Paper doesn’t stop the skimming. They did a test years (decades) ago after they started teaching speed reading to kids in school. People were given a ‘book’ with two stories in it, even lines were one, odd the other. they were then given a test where they were told to only answer the questions that pertained to the book they’d been given. Most answered questions for one or the other — very few even noticed that there was two stories …

    I ‘scanned’ the article and then went back to look at bits, I read a story the same whether paper or screen, only starting to scan when the writer is boring me …

  4. This article references a study from 2009 that uses 2008 data, and looks at all “information” consumption in the U.S. The study is before deep penetration of iPads, eReaders, and even smart phones. It doesn’t examine comprehension from those screens, or cite whether people are doing their computer-based reading on CRT or LED screens, or in what environments.
    Most “news” articles that pick on ‘comprehension’ and ‘attention’ that I have read cite research studies from the 80s and 90s that use CRT screens, often with PDF files, and typically with very small research samples, and then administer the same non-bias-controlled ‘comprehension’ tests as the SAT.
    Have yet to see a “how people comprehend when reading on screens” study that scientifically examines what people do with modern devices and real texts.

    • Yeah. No.

      There are plenty of current studies using LCDs, E-Ink, any technology you could think of. Including studies by people whose livelihoods depend on developing for online platforms, like Jakob Nielsen. Conclusion: It’s more tiring and taxing to read on a screen. Comprehension suffers, even in tests where you’re allowed to keep the text you’re being tested on.

      Digital devices are great for certain things. But for long text, books provide feedback digital devices can’t. How big/long the book is. Where on the page you saw something you want to refer back to. How many chapters you have left to read. Studies show people use this information, and because it involves multiple senses it’s less taxing than, say, scrolling.

      I haven’t seen the fancy new Kindle, but I just don’t see E-ink making that much of a difference. Kindle sales are through the floor and Nook is nearly dead. Most people who want an ereader have one already.

      • Patricia Sierra

        My experience is the opposite of what you described. Maybe it all depends on who the reader is.

        Where did you get the idea that Kindle sales are through the floor?

      • What studies are you referencing?

        I wasn’t familiar with Nielsen, but a Google search turned up this result:

        Of course those might not be all the articles he’s published ever, but I didn’t see any that led to the conclusion you mentioned. I saw only a few after 2012 that mentioned iPads or Kindles, but nothing that I think we could really draw conclusions from in 2015.

        I don’t think most researchers have spent enough time with new technologies to be able to form good hypotheses, much less sound conclusions. I’d like to see more studies consider the type of screen rather than print versus screen; I’d hypothesize that reading on a Kindle Fire or iPad is a very different experience than reading on a Paperwhite.

        I won’t argue that people draw tactile and visual clues based on print reading, but I do think as people continue to read on screens, we’ll gradually adapt to use other information to make similar inferences.

        I can’t argue that Nook is nearly dead, but all evidence seems to indicate Amazon’s digital platform, from subscription services to devices to ebook sales, are going pretty strong. Amazon doesn’t release exact figures, but I think the Author Earnings reports have some decent implications.

        I’ll note personally I haven’t read print in going on three years now, but I do favor different reading on an iPad Air 2 versus a Paperwhite; I reserve the latter for novels, while I use the former primarily for web browsing and magazines (at least when it comes to reading on it). The Kindle app on iOS is very good, but for me there’s a marked difference between reading on the LCD versus the e-ink. And in fact I favor the e-ink to help me get through long books. Not knowing how far I’ve gotten in It or Ulysses or Ben Franklin’s biography has actually encouraged me to just keep reading until there wasn’t anything left to read.

      • You’ll need to link these studies Steve if you want to be believed.

        • They’re probably something like this:

          “A team of researchers led by Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Jean-Luc Velay at Aix-Marseille Université in France divided 50 graduate students — with equivalent reading habits and experience with tablets — into two groups and had them read the same short story by Elizabeth George (in French translation). One group read the story in paperback, the other on an Amazon Kindle DX.”

          Two groups, both with experience using tablets, and she hands one group a Kindle DX. Gosh, why didn’t she give them a familiar device? If I were going to rig the study, that’s how I’d do it. DXs are nice devices but they aren’t immediately comfortable to use if you’re a “noob.” An unfamiliar device is a distraction. When humans are distracted during a task, their performance suffers. The result was entirely unsurprising.

        • I have completely the opposite experience. Wearing my historical novelist hat I’ve spent some months researching a complex topic and have found that the reading I did on my Kindle added a whole other dimension of comprehension. I didn’t skim. I didn’t scroll. I read in the dark, a page at a time, at night, with a Paperwhite and it was an intense experience that I’ve never been able to replicate with paper. To be honest, the immediacy and intensity even surprised ME, given that I was reading a long series of poems and letters by an 18th century Scotsman: Robert Burns. I found it rather counter-intuitive – or contrary to everything I had been told should happen – but it felt as though the words were going straight from Rab’s hand to my head. For most practical purposes these days, I prefer eBooks. I’ll consult paper books for other kinds of research, note taking etc, old editions and commentaries – and boy do I skim there! All researchers do, otherwise they’d never be done. But for sheer blissful involvement, even in a tricky subject, give me my Kindle every time. My instinct is that this whole process is evolving so much and so quickly that we can’t draw any definitive conclusions.

  5. What evidence do they have that all screen reading is the same and that we don’t adjust depending on the type of screen? And what evidence do they have that people don’t skim and do keyword reading in print? (I do and most extremely fast readers do exactly that)

    • Anec-data, but when I read on my Kindle, I have to be very careful to force myself to concentrate on the material rather than skimming. Any text on a screen kicks me into skim mode. Text on paper? No problem. I suspect it is (in my case) a matter of being conditioned that the screen is for composition or skimming, while a print book is for serious reading. YMMV.

  6. People that read books read. People that surf the Web skim. Yes, there is a VEN diagram there. I rarely surf and only skim news in my feed if it is uninteresting to me.

    Suffice to say, this one interested me 🙂

  7. I can only look at all the ebooks I consumed this past month and sigh. I read them closely, with intense concentration, and enjoyed every minute. My plastic brain doesn’t care how the words are presented, only that they’re pleasing.

    Skimming is for web browsing and social media.

  8. I tend to skim online sites for articles that interest me. Generally it’s not a problem. But this time I got really confused about the part with the camel eating oysters at Barnes & Noble.

  9. Al the Great and Powerful

    My devices show me where I am in the text (as a percentage or by pagecount, by default). They let me bookmark, they let me jump around the chapters. They don’t do it the same way I do it with a hardcopy, but they let me do the same kind of feedback things I can do with the hardcopy.

    And this, ” It’s more tiring and taxing to read on a screen.” is rubbish. Just plain wrong. I read ALL DAY, both onscreen and from hardcopies, its my job doing research and writing. It is NOT more taxing OR tiring to read onscreen.

    • I didn’t ask you for your subjective opinions. I didn’t provide my subjective opinions. I told you what studies show.

      • Links to the studies please?

      • ‘Studies show’, without citations, is no better than a subjective opinion. Unpacked: ‘I found a report of a study somewhere that confirms my own subjective opinion, and I am now going to tell people that my opinion is absolute fact because SCIENCE!!’

        • Smart Debut Author

          Yeah. Pretty much this. But for most of these anti-ereading articles we’ve been seeing, you can substitute “agenda” for “opinion” 🙂

          • Is this anonymous Steve, Steve Z?

            • Smart Debut Author

              Nah. The authorial voice is wrong. Steve Z sounds like your befuddled but patronizing old uncle, while this Steve sounds like Mr. Argumentative.

              • True, yet the stances they take seem a lot the same.

                • Smart Debut Author

                  Sadly, the conga line of traditionalist buffoonery is long enough to accommodate more than one Steve.

                • @ Smart Debut Author

                  No! Say it ain’t so! 😛

                • Smart Debut Author

                  Aw, c’mon Allen — they give us a daily dose of laughter.

                  But they sure do take themselves seriously, don’t they.

                • Take your work seriously but never take yourself seriously; and do not take what happens either to yourself or your work seriously. — Booth Tarkington

                  Now I lay me back to sleep. The speaker’s dull; the subject’s deep. If he should stop before I wake, Give me a nudge for goodness’ sake. — Anonymous

          • That snapping sound was the last thread connecting you to reality.

  10. To me, this isn’t necessarily about reading on a screen but about reading on the Web, with various images, bits of text (such as links & menus) and other odd bits to distract us.

    When I want to focus on the information in an article, I cut and paste it (special paste>no formatting) into a blank Word document. I can then read it with full concentration, just as well as on paper.

  11. It’s true. I skim read this article. And the comments, to see if anyone already said something similar to me.

  12. Al the Great and Powerful

    Steve, I read for a living. And I read for enjoyment. Every single day. It isn’t a subjective opinion, its years of experience. YEARS. DECADES. What have you got? Studies? For how long? under what conditions? How did they verify their findings?

    Show me the studies. Show me proof this one is wrong when she says, “since humans didn’t evolve to read, we have very plastic brain circuits for this particular skill and our brains easily adapt to whatever medium we read.” Because that is what I see… it is EASY to pick up reading just as long and just as well from a screen, be it e-ink, LCD, CRT, or hand puppets.

  13. No study trumps personal experience. I too read screens and paper all day, every day. Generally, I prefer screens because the clutter is easier to manage. And I skim and deep read where appropriate. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but don’t take away my screens.

  14. Smart Debut Author

    Pure junk science, twisted to fit an anti-ebook agenda.

    Keep repeating it, loud enough and often enough, and maybe someone will even believe you.

    My favorite recent propaganda moron-meme:

    “millenials prefer reading paper books.” 🙂

    Sure they do. And I hear 8-track tapes are making a huge comeback, too… 😀

  15. All this research is bogus. People really don’t read anymore.

    We all went blind watching so much TV in the 50s and 60s.


    • Exactly. People who are least 40-50 years old have heard these breathless, pearl-clutching reports from their youth. Substitute “television” for and you’ve heard it multiple times. I seem to recall the television having an “off” button but I may be mistaken…

  16. Smart Debut Author

    Few of this article’s cited “studies” are less than a decade old.
    Here’s what the most recent “study” they cite actually says, if you bother to click through and read it:

    “Neither multitasking nor medium impacted reading comprehension, but those who multitasked took longer to read both passages, indicating loss of efficiency with multitasking… Participants read the source texts either on (1) paper, (2) computer screen without Internet or printer access, or (3) computer screen with Internet and printer access (called the “real-world” condition). There were no differences in report quality or efficiency between those whose source materials were paper or computer… reading the texts on paper did not make a significant difference in report quality, compared with either of the two computer conditions.”

    • I was greatly amused at the “multitasking” nonsense. If multitasking weren’t a mythical beast, there wouldn’t be so many car crashes attributed to cellphone yapping. Attempts to multitask usually result in multiple tasks done badly. When human brains have cybernetic implants, then we can multitask.

  17. Speaking of dead bodies . . .

    . . . Aurora is now posted at The Log of the Antares for your reading enjoyment.

  18. I think what this article really says is that multitasking is bad for reading.

    And reading on screens (as in cell phones or computers) makes it super easy to multitask and then move into skimming, rather than reading deeply.

    Nothing to do with settling down to read a book on the Kindle. In fact, my old model lets me do just that and nothing else.

  19. I’ve been working with Spritz for about six months. It’s strange at first, but it grows on you. It definitely requires more focus and concentration since the reader can’t glance away, and then comeback to the sentence. The words keep flowing until stopped.


  20. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.”

    I read Ullyses. It took me months, reading a chapter now and again – I can’t imagine anyone reading it over a few days, deeply immersed, though I suppose some people have done so.

    Honestly, I don’t get what was supposed to be so “important” about the book. It was just a book, nothing earth shattering, it won’t make you a better person, you won’t have some mystical experience or understand life better.

    Telling people you have read it, doesn’t even impress the majority of the human race. They just just think you are a literature nerd. I suppose it is a secret signal to other literature nerds, for what that’s worth, which isn’t all that much, in my experience.

  21. I just want to see one study that compares reading narrative fiction on a mass market book compared to a front lit e-ink reader. So far I haven’t. I’ve seen e-ink lumped in with tablets. I’ve seen references to kindles, but no indication if they are Kindles or Fire tablets.

    I have access to lots of tablets find reading on a tablet very fatiguing, whether it’s a cheap android or a high end “retina” screen on a Fire HDX or iPad. I don’t feel the same way at all about reading on any of the e-ink devices.

    • I agree, Kat. Reading on my Fire or smartphone for long periods is a no-go, but on an eink Kindle I can go as long as with paper. Actually longer because I can increase the font size to make it easier for my old eyes.

  22. Al the Great and Powerful

    And I find no great difference between paper and my Nexus 7 tablet. I do find reading two-page spreads on my computer can seem bright after a while, but that’s easily adjusted. I may just be habituated to bright screens like I am habituated to coffee… I can do both right up to turning off the light and going to sleep, because I do both all day a lot of the time.

    Anyway, at this stage in my life the tablet is the clear winner for its adjustability – If its too bright I can turn down the brightness, and if its too dark I can lighten it. I can vary the font size, even change fonts if I desire. I spent two decades studying Japanese language and history, I used to be able to read and write REALLY SMALL text (you identify Kanji characters by stroke count, so you need to be able to see every little stroke clearly, and worse, you need to WRITE them all just as tiny, clearly, so others can read what you said). I appreciate that I don’t need to do so anymore now that I have a tablet.

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