Many researchers agree that screen-based reading can dull comprehension because it is more mentally taxing and maybe more physically tiring than reading on paper. Computer screens, smartphones and tablets shine light directly on the face. Even though today’s LCDs are gentler on eyes than their precursor, cathode-ray tube (CRT) screens, extended reading on self-illuminated screens can cause headaches, eyestrain, and blurred vision.
A collection of new studies suggest that individuals don’t always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Researcher Ziming Liu of San Jose State University found that participants reading on screens take lots of short cuts – spending more time scanning, browsing and hunting for keywords compared with participants reading on paper. When reading from a paper book, “Turning the pages is like leaving one footprint after another on a trail – there is a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled.” When using a digital device, however, one might scroll through a passage, tap forward one page at a time, or use the search function to find a specific page – but it’s difficult to to see any passage in the context of the entire text.
The latest research also indicates that young children, aged three to 5 years old are less distracted when being read to from a book. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that children were more apt to fiddle with buttons, and lose track of the narrative when being read to on an electric console book with sound effects.
Still, digital texts offer advantages in many situations. If someone is under a deadline for a research paper, for example, the ease of accessing hundreds of key-word-searchable online documents outweighs reading books one at a time. For people with poor vision, adjustable font size and the sharp contrast of an LCD screen are huge strongpoints.
While it may be a matter of one’s preference, many studies have found that not only is paper and ink easier on the eyes, but people’s understanding and memory of the text is better because of the physicality of paper.
Though digital reading is here, and will be here in the future, cognitive scientist MaryAnne Wolf of Tufts University says, “There is physicality in reading. Maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading – as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms but know when to use the new.” Scientific American November 2013