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Is Your Device Reducing Your Reading Comprehension?

Is Your Device Reducing Your Reading Comprehension?

Why is it important to keep using physical paper and books?  Mainly due to what it does to our brain and learning.  Did you know that different brain paths are used and stimulated when using physical reading material versus e-reading?  Did you know that there is now a “digital culture” and a “pre-digital culture” that conflict and fight for dominancy?  Also, did you know that there could be a generational gap in physical thinking processes leading to the ability to think deeply, have original thought and have high reading comprehension?

Let’s start from the beginning to get an understanding of where digital culture came from.

The transformation from a traditional to digital culture has taken much time and has taken many twists and turns. Digital media has revolutionized the way we communicate introducing instant messaging, Facebook, Instagram, Hangouts, Skype, and many other applications that allow communication from opposite ends of the world in a blink of an eye. It has revolutionized war, computing calculations, travel, the work place, and even dating. However, digital media has had the most influence over knowledge acquisition. The best way to obtain knowledge, from a physical book, online, or an ebook, has had much debate with no finite answer. Pre-Web culture insists it has the most beneficial and long lasting results, and current Digital culture insists that increased access and ease trumps all. While both have legitimate claims, the friction runs high.

Machine readable information was first introduce by Charles Babbage in the 1800’s. He designed these codes to help him solve errors in calculations. Ada Lovelace was the first to write instructions for Babbage’s engine, which was later coined as the first computer program. Babbage also introduced player pianos and jacquard looms. These machines were among the first analog computers (1).

In 1948, the first binary, or digital, computer was introduced. These programmable computers included digital software that used logic to control operations (1). For example, “If input equals “0,” then action equals “1.” Binary is a system of 1’s and 0’s in combinations of eight digits that give us the “digits” in digital media.

In 1942, the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator, ENIAC, was engineered to help assist in the calculations for trajectories during World War II. Then, in the 1950’s, magnetic core memory and transistors were introduced leading to a new model of a digital computer and increased Random Access Memory, RAM. These newer models of digital computers led to the invention of the Personal Computer (PC) (3).

Eventually, the PC led to laptops, iPods, iPhones, iPads, Kindles, eReaders, and more. This change from paper to digital has caused the book industry to reevaluate its course. While eReaders may overtake the majority of the book market, there are many positives and negatives to both physical and digital books.

A Norwegian study evaluating the reading pattern of tenth-graders revealed that students who read on paper had a significantly higher reading comprehension than those who read the same material digitally (4). Anne Mangen of Norway Stavanger University attributed this to the multiple senses engaged when reading. She notes, “When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress… Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story (6).”

The issue with reading comprehension is that it influences our ability to deeply think. By not thoroughly comprehending what we read, we lack the opportunity to process the information and have original, deep thinking patterns and thoughts. However, digital text can also increase the potential for creativity and discovery through the ability to link multiple sources regarding the same topic onto one page. Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai give an example of a page about a Shakespearian play where the text is supplemented by a video of the play, relevant historical information, art, and discussions that allow and encourage the reader to dive deeper into the play and than simply reading it (2).

Wolf and Barzillai also mention, “However, this great gift of easily accessible, readily available, rich information has the potential to form a more passive and, as Socrates put it, an even more easily “deluded” learner. Although this is possible within any medium, online reading presents an extreme of sorts with its uncensored, unedited maelstrom of anything and everything that is always available and capable of diverting one’s attention (2).” Continuing on this subject, they note how the digital culture’s reinforcement of frequent and rapid shifts in attention and the multiplicity of distractions “short-circuit the development of more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.”

According to the Library & Information Science Research Journal, most 10th grade students prefer eReaders (5). Among the rise in preference for electronics, there has also been a rise in a plethora of mental and behavioral disorders including childhood bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Dr. Victoria Dunckley believes the effects of electronic screens are unnatural and overstimulating (6). She believes that ADHD and bipolar disorder are misdiagnoses and that Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is to blame for the hyperactivity, mood disorders, behavior disorders, and mental health woes that are afflicting our youth. Dr. Dunckley continues, “Interacting with screens shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode which leads to dysregulation and disorganization of various biological systems.  Sometimes this stress response is immediate and pronounced (say while playing an action video game), and other times the response is more subtle and may happen only after a certain amount of repetition (say while texting)… In short though, interacting with screen devices causes a child to become overstimulated and “revved up.”

Paper material also helps reduce eye strain and remedy sleep problems. Blue light emitted from electronic screens interacts with and alters circadian rhythms, which can make falling asleep and staying asleep much harder. CBS notes, “A 2014 study published in the journal PNAS found that reading an e-book before bedtime decreased the production of melatonin, a hormone that preps the body for sleep. E-books also impaired alertness the following day (5).”

While there are obvious woes to each side of the table, there are also irreplaceable attributes to each. Physical books, papers, and articles allow for deeper thought processes and the opportunity for information to sink deeply within us, increasing our reading comprehension and solidifying our more complex brain activity. However, books take up more space than an eReader and aren’t as easily accessible. eBooks and online material are extremely accessible allowing for more information acquisition and a possibility of increased depth of information or creativity, while the actual means can cause eye strain, sleeping problems, or effect natural mental, behavioral, and mood processes. Essentially, a happy medium between both paper material and eReaders would be the ideal combination for increased comprehension, deep thought, original thought, and creativity.

Have thoughts on this?  Let me know!










  1. “Digital Media.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 June 2017. Web. 28 June 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_media>.
  2. Wolf, Maryanne, and Mirit Barzillai. “The Importance of Deep Reading.” Educational Leadership 66.6 (2009): 32-37. Web. 28 June 2017. <https://www.mbaea.org/documents/resources/Educational_Leadership_Article_The__D87FE2BC4E7AD.pdf>.
  3. Moh, Yun. A Brief History of the Computer. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2017. <http://www.seattlecentral.edu/~ymoh/history_of_computer/history_of_computer.htm>.
  4. Ramasubbu, Suren. “Paper Books Vs. eBooks: The State of the Art of Reading.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 10 May 2016. Web. 28 June 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/suren-ramasubbu/paper-books-vs-ebooks-the_b_9890584.html>.
  5. Kraft, Amy. “Books vs. e-books: The science behind the best way to read.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 June 2017. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kindle-nook-e-reader-books-the-best-way-to-read/>.
  6. Dunckley, Victoria L. “Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 23 July 2012. Web. 28 June 2017. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201207/electronic-screen-syndrome-unrecognized-disorder>.


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