Are e-readers hurting our reading comprehension?

An article in Scientific American suggests that, initially, reading on screens may diminish our capacity to understand what we read. But that could be changing.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Researchers have been studying reading comprehension on screens as opposed to paper since at least the 1980s.

Do e-readers hamper reading comprehension?

As e-readers and tablets become increasingly popular, that question is the crux of a new article by Scientific American that examines the brain’s response to reading on paper versus reading electronically. When we move from one medium to another, for example, do we retain the same level of information? Do we absorb the message as completely? Do we enjoy the same quality of concentration in reading?

Though research – and indeed, our own adaptation to electronic reading – is ongoing and changing, the SA article suggests reading on electronic devices can inhibit reading comprehension by hindering readers’ ability to fully absorb and process content. But that may be changing.

“[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way,” writes Ferris Jabr for the Scientific American. “In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”

One reason for this is that screens are visually taxing to look at, causing eye fatigue, especially after reading for long periods of time.

“Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done,” Jabr writes.

But here’s the interesting part: We may actually be adapting to reading on screens.

You see, researchers have been studying reading comprehension on screens as opposed to paper since at least the 1980s. According to the SA, “Before 1992, most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper."

Curiously, however, studies published since then have shown a slow change, namely in that more recent studies have found few significant differences between comprehension of screens versus paper.

“Attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common,” reports the article, positing that future generations may “grow up without the subtle bias against screens that seems to lurk in the minds of older generations.”

That, to us, is the most fascinating facet of this latest study.

Are e-readers changing the way we read, even changing the way our brains absorb information? Are our brains, unbeknownst to us, in the midst of a literary-cerebral evolution, adapting to new digital formats, e-ink, and screen reading?

While the majority of readers still report a preference for paper books, something tells us the next generation may embrace e-reading as wholeheartedly as our forefathers did the printing press.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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