With the advent of digital devices, there has been a shift in how people read. Instead of only paper-based reading, people nowadays spend most of their day reading on their cell phones, tablets, and computers. Children start using screen-based devices from a young age and it is not uncommon that they are already well-acquainted with such devices before being exposed to books. How exactly might this new digital landscape affect reading?
Learning how to read took the brain thousands of years!
Reading is a fundamental skill necessary for many activities in our daily life but unlike vision or speech, reading is not something humans are genetically programmed to do. It is an unnatural process that everyone must learn. The beginning of literacy therefore required the brain to adapt and consequently a neural circuitry for reading was created over a period of thousands of years.
However, due to the adaptable nature of the brain, constantly changing depending on the way it is used, this neural circuitry is malleable. How people read and process what they read might thus very well be affected by changes in the environment such as the frequent use of screen-based devices.
When reading on a digital device, various factors contribute to a different reading experience than when reading on paper. For many people, the most important variable is the tangibility of a book that digital reading lacks. However, reading online also allows people to interact with the text in a different fashion compared to when reading a book. For example, with just one click or swipe, people can within seconds jump from one source to another. Furthermore, instead of turning a page, they can scroll up and down through the text to quickly browse through it and are able to search for specific words.
Researchers have speculated that this changed layout and interaction might have resulted in a new norm in reading – skimming. When scrolling on a device, people tend to read more quickly and superficially than when reading sequentially from page to page. They read in a more selective fashion, not concentrating as much on following the text as people do when reading from a page.
Skimming is a very useful ability – even a necessary one
With the constant bombardment of information on the internet and social media, skimming can be a very useful ability and even a necessary one. It allows people to combat the overload of information available to them. They can quickly browse and scan through the text, locating keywords and focusing on what they want and need to read and skipping the rest. This tendency to focus only on what is necessary is encapsulated in the common internet acronym TL;DR: too long, didn’t read.
Are we losing the ability to deep read?
Although skimming is often advantageous, there has been some concern over the possible consequences if it becomes a habit rather than an occasional tool. When moving quickly through a text and just selectively absorbing parts of it, the time allocated to deep reading processes is reduced. The ability to think critically about the content and to grasp the meaning of the text might thus be affected.
Skimming as a habit might affect attention span and deep think
There have been reports as well from people who claim to have noticed a change in their capacity for sustained reading after getting used to screen-based devices. They report being more easily distracted and that their reading is more on the surface. However, there seems to be limited support for these claims so far. Studies have, for instance, provided mixed results regarding the effects of screen-based reading on reading comprehension, with some studies suggesting that comprehension is worse when reading on screen versus paper and others reporting no such difference.
Future research will therefore have to determine exactly what the effects of this new digital landscape might be on reading. Whether or not onscreen text and skimming influence reading comprehension and other factors, one thing is for sure, the nature of media and content is changing. Beanfee’s content is presented using a design intended to resemble social media posts as it has become the medium that people are most familiar with.
The digital world has brought exciting new opportunities to present and deliver information and to engage users. These changes bring new challenges as well that we must adapt to because the technology is here to stay. Even though we might read in a different fashion when reading from a screen than on paper, we need to be capable of in-depth and concentrated reading in both digital and traditional mediums.
New technology is here to stay, and we must adapt
The brain adapts and develops depending on how it is used. If we identify the changes in reading and their possible consequences before they get entrenched, it is possible to modify them if necessary. It is comforting to know that just as it once adapted to form a reading circuit, the brain can adapt to this new reading environment as well.