The Impact of Reading Digitally Versus on Print

Man reading ipad on top of a stack of books

How Information Consumption Is Changing

We currently live in an era where information is retained differently digitally versus when reading on print. When the brain initially develops, reading then evolves into a skill instead of an inherent capability. When first learning to read, the brain produces a new network specifically designed for that task, which is a product of the brain's neuroplasticity. Its ability to readjust and redirect existing neuronal networks to generate entirely new ones. Though neuroplasticity also means the ability to read changes over time, which is happening in reaction to the current digital age. Information is scanned and skimmed when read online and when read using e-readers. This causes superficial reading, whereas, in contrast, reading print tends to enable users to deep read. In-depth reading is essential to both critical analysis and empathy. When reading deeply, images are also often constructed to aid a better understanding of the text. However, superficial reading is becoming the new norm as this digital age alters in-depth text.

When reading digitally, people are consuming the information differently from how they would when reading a printed publication. For example, scanning text is a typical behaviour when surrounded by Twitter, Facebook, and the likes of Medium online publications. The problem with these platforms is that they are a direct root for our change in reading habits. Resulting in skimming becoming our dominant mode of thought. While Medium goes a step further and informs users how long each article will take them to read. Online reading causes scanning due to people's lack of ability to concentrate due to the shortened attention span.

User Experience professional Steve Krug states, We do not read pages. We scan them.

Scanning is becoming the prominent way in how we read when the information gets consumed digitally, which is most if not all, of the time.

Before the internet, the brain was adapted to read linearly through solely reading print. When reading linearly, information is remembered more naturally. This is because the old reading was linear and exclusionary; the new reading is democratic as every text opens out to linked pages – chains of new ideas. However, now the standard behaviour is non-linear reading as there is an increasing amount of time spent reading electronic documents and content online. There could be a direct link as to why memory also seems to be weakening as we no longer retain information properly. There is always the luxury of looking something up, taking away the need to remember facts. However, to fully understand anything in-depth, it is essential to have focused attention, but this is what most people today lack because of internet misuse. Information is available everywhere online, never mind videos, and hyperlinks engrained into the text. Is it any wonder that a screen-based dominant reading behaviour is emerging?


When reading, numerous brain functions work together. These include visual and auditory processes, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension. Reading digitally versus reading a physical book has significant differences.

The change from paper to screen does not just alter the way we navigate a piece of text, it also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.

As a direct result of continuous digital reading, it is affecting the development of deep reading skills. Twitter is a prime example, and it has described as a micro-blogging service and over 200 million people keenly use this platform with its 280-character space limit that everyone abides.

Anne Mangen from Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences conducted a study to explore the importance of physically touching paper while reading. Mangen carried this out by evaluating the performance of readers of paper with those reading on screens. Mangen concluded that e-reading resulted in lower comprehension due to the physical constraints of the text, which required readers to scroll up and down. Scrolling interrupted their reading with a spatial instability, which is essential as having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text leads to better reading comprehension. Essentially, students who understand well is due to their memory of the layout of the text. Therefore, demonstrating there could be a link between the layout of what gets read and how well it will be understood. It is necessary to highlight that e-reading results in low compression, as the students needed to scroll up and down to read the text and the fact that it offers a clear opportunity for multitasking through hyperlinks.

Screen dominated environments are the norm now; the time spent reading online throughout the day could be affecting how we learn.

Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, worries that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.

Even though when reading online, more words get read, this differs entirely from reading a book of the same length. As today reading is often in short bursts and many people, tend to skip from one topic to the next, so not taking in and processing the information they have read. Online reading is often received as a heroic, triumphalist narrative, while books get disparaged as disconnected. There is plenty of research on how our brain reacts to the internet conducted by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers; they all have the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. The ability to think profoundly is impossible when browsing the internet because distractions surround us.

Writer, Nicholas Car knows the extent of the addictiveness of the internet as it provides precisely the sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive that is needed to stay hooked on it.

Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. The amount of time spent online is increasing and deteriorating the ability for in-depth reading. This alternative way of reading is competing with thorough traditional text developed over several millennia. Susan Greenfield believes that the impact of how people learn today could be different from how they traditionally learned using books. How information is processed is now altered as people tend to skim read or glance at articles until they get to the main point. Essentially, no longer taking in the same amount of information despite there being more information available now than ever. Non-linear reading is also the new standard, taking away the ability for concentration and focus when reading.

From Sherry Turkle's Alone together – it can be said that there is a constant pressure to always respond to texts and calls. This pressure leads to severe effects on people's ability to switch off, which leads to additional stress and anxiety. We are expected to be reachable at a moment's notice, which can cause distress and the inability to switch off when we are always engaged. Thanks to our ever-present messaging systems and devices, we never really have to disconnect. Elaine, a seventeen-year-old, thinks texting is more comfortable than calling someone. Simply because When you can think about what you are going to say, you can talk to someone, you would have trouble talking to. Suggests she would rather have time to construct her thoughts without any strain, which would not be the case if she had a face to face conversation.

The arrival of social networking caused a decline in empathy, as a small majority of people can no longer read people's faces to understand their emotions. Therefore, as a result, they can no longer adequately hold conversations.

Data collected throughout thirty years from 14,000 US college students indicates that overall levels of empathy may be declining.

As a result, this research has shown that empathy has deteriorated with a 40 percent decline. Coincidentally, this decline occurred in the last decade in line with the growing and emerging trends of digital communications.

It is worth noting that how people socialise has also changed fundamentally due to the arrival of social networking. In 1987 according to a study, we averaged six hours per day in face-to-face social interaction, and four via electronic media. These results changed massively as in 2007 we spent almost eight hours a day socialising via a screen. And only two and a half hours in face-to-face social interaction. Many people prefer to text or send an email rather than have a phone call with someone, especially people aged between eighteen to thirty-five. The main reason behind this is because they cannot pre-plan what they are going to say or to edit out what they do say. European telecommunications company O2 conducted a study in 2012, which revealed that the telephone app was Only the fifth-most-used app among the general public. Clearly emphasising that phones are not being used for calls anymore. This research suggests that the less people engage in-depth reading, the less empathetic they are likely to become.

Further studies indicate those who use social media the most have difficulty reading human emotions, including their own.

Technology will continue to have a massive impact on how socialising will remain in the future.

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