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.
Of course, there’s no clear-cut answer to the paper vs. screen question—it’s tangled with variables, like what kind of medium we’re talking about (paper, e-book, laptop, iPhone), the type of text (Fifty Shades of Grey or War and Peace), who’s reading and their preference, whether they’re a digital native, and many other factors. But many 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.
But what about e-books? We don’t have to fight for our attention with a Kindle—they’re as close to a traditional paperback as technology offers, with a similar layout and image quality that rivals physical books. Yet paper may still have the advantage, simply because of its physical form. In a recent study led by reading researcher Anne Mangen from the University of Stavanger, Norway, 50 graduate students read a short mystery story, either in a pocket print book or on a Kindle. They were then tested for different measures, like emotional response, reading time, and text comprehension. The researchers found almost no significant differences between the paper books and Kindles, save one: people who read on paper were much better at reconstructing the plot of the story.
Mangen explains that the tactile feedback of paper may help people process certain information when they read, and this may be lost when we move to digital texts. "You can tell from a book that you’re reading a 500-page novel or a 10-page poem, but you can’t tell that from a Kindle or an iPad," says Mangen. You also can’t physically see how much of the e-book you’ve read, and you don’t have the tactile experience of turning the pages, and all this makes it much harder to create a mental map of the text. "There’s a difference in the fixity of paper and the intangibility of a digital text," explains Mangen. "And it then becomes a question for what kinds of reading that may actually matter"—perhaps a longer novel, or a story that relies heavily on a chronological narrative.
Despite the apparent benefits of paper, Mangen and other reading researchers caution the screen-reading vs. traditional reading question has nuances that scientists have yet to fully understand. Which method works better may depend on the individual (for example, there’s evidence that for some people with dyslexia, e-readers improve reading speed and comprehension). Ultimately, it may be that both print and screen have unique advantages, and we’ll need to be able to read equally well on both—which means keeping our distracted habits onscreen from bleeding into what we read on an e-book or paperback. And reading researchers have some advice for how to prevent this: forget your smartphone and computer, sit down, and read a book.