Is reading on a screen bad for the brain?

People of all ages are spending more time than ever before getting information on their screens. My three-year-old loves his piles of books, but he goes crazy for ebooks on my phone. And they are a great choice for me to give him sometimes, too, like when we’re traveling or when I am barely awake and holding a book over my head just doesn’t work. But is reading on a screen bad for kids? Does reading on a screen affect reading comprehension?

Some research shows that people remember things better and comprehend more deeply when they read information on paper, as opposed to on a screen. But is this something special about the human brain? Or is it a matter of teaching kids appropriate strategies for reading on a screen? I suspect it’s a bit of both. However, even if paper makes it easier for people to learn, digital information isn’t going away. We need effective strategies for making the most of digital content.

Skimming: Understanding the structure of text

If you are reading paper material, it is usually pretty easy to tell what kind of thing you are reading by looking at its physical appearance. Is it a thick book? A magazine? A photocopied packet? A newspaper article? Digital print is harder to figure out at a glance, so previewing the text helps you figure out what you are going to read and make a plan for doing it right.

  • When you are reading a text on a screen, take steps to make sure you understand the way the document is organized and to help you figure out and remember where things are.
  • Look at the table of contents or scroll from the beginning to the end. How many parts/chapters/headings are there? How long is each part?
  • Read the title of each main section. Which ones seem the most important to you? Which ones are you interested in or excited about?
  • While you are skimming, look for text features that stand out. Does the author use:
    • Bullets
    • Numbered lists
    • Lots of links
    • Tables
    • Infographics
    • Video clips?

Knowing the type of information you will find helps you plan your reading style.

Use search and bookmarks to find important points in the document

One downside I notice when reading an ebook or reading a long document on the internet is I have more trouble remembering where I read something. For example, in a novel I might flip back to a previous chapter to refresh my memory when I can’t remember a conversation characters had. If I’m reading in a paperback, it’s easy for me to remember that it was about a third of the way through the book. Reading on a screen, I have more trouble remembering where I saw something. Luckily, the search feature in a web browser or an ebook makes it easy to find a piece of text if I can remember any of the words around it.

  • If you find something that you know will be important, use the bookmark feature of your ebook reader to mark that page. Or use the highlighter to mark a line or word. If you are reading in your browser, write down or copy and paste a key word or phrase that you want to come back to later.

Note taking tools for marking up digital text

Studies of user behavior show that readers online tend to skim through information, scroll past details, and click on links. Have you ever found yourself on a website or watching a video on YouTube and had no idea how you got there? All you wanted to do was sit down and check directions to a new restaurant. But now here you are. This type of behavior can lead to interesting discoveries and but it can be a waste of time and an ineffective way to study or learn.

When you’re reading to find specific information, you need a system to take notes so that you will remember what you read. There’s nothing worse than spending an afternoon scrolling through articles only to realize that you can’t remember which one had the excellent fact you wanted to include in your paper. Use a note taking system, either paper or digital, to keep track of what you’re reading so that you don’t lose details.

One simple and quick system for doing this is a system like two column notes. You can either create a table with two columns or draw a line down the middle of a piece of notebook paper. There are a few different ways to use two column notes. One way is to write the key information about your source, including a link to the article, in one column and write the fact that you gather in the other. Doing this on a word processing document makes it easier to transfer it into your paper later. You can simply copy and paste the facts you found. Another way to keep track of information as you find it is to use a digital notebook tool like Evernote or Google Keep. Google Keep has an extension for your browser. When you highlight a piece of text and then click on the Google Keep icon, Google Keep creates a note on your notepad that has the information you selected, as well as a link to the source. The downside of this is you will have many separate notes for your topic by the time you are done.

Managing distractions like links

The really wonderful thing about reading texts in digital form is that writers are able to embed all sorts of helpful information that doesn’t fit in their paragraph. Links can give your digital reading experience a much more three-dimensional feeling than turning pages in a textbook. Want to see a map up close? Zoom in. Not sure who the scientist is that the author refers to? Click the hyperlink to go to a page about his work. Unfortunately, with all of that additional information comes a whole new kind of distraction that readers don’t have to deal with on paper. Here are some tips for dealing with beneficial and distracting links as you read.

  • Before you click a link, ask yourself will this help me meet my goal for this reading? If your goal is to find information on the causes of the Civil War, you don’t need to click links that will take you to information about modern-day geography of towns in the south.
  • If you do think a link will be beneficial, right click on it to open it in a new tab or a new window. This can be a double-edged sword, however, because before you know it you may have a dozen tabs open next to the article you’re reading and all of that information, good as it might be, just becomes a distraction. Use this strategy with restraint.
  • Consider reading an article twice. The first time, read through the text on the page and take any notes about important facts you read. The second time you go through the article, click on relevant links. In effect, if an article is valid, you can not only use it as a source but also as a source for further reading. Think of these as two different uses for the article and don’t try to do them at the same time.
  • Print to PDF and ignore the links. If you find that you have a very difficult time ignoring all of the hyperlinks in a piece of text, get rid of them. Click print in your web browser and print the page you are trying to read to a PDF. You don’t have to print the file to paper, because when you print the PDF it will make the links non-clickable. You can always go back to that source another time, and click on the links if you need more sources or more information.
  • If you really can’t stop yourself from clicking links or searching related material, the nuclear option is to use airplane mode. When your device is in airplane mode, you won’t be able to reach the internet to start that unnecessary “extra research” that always leads you to Facebook or the weird parts of Wikipedia.

Managing reading speed

Think about the way you scan the covers of magazines while you wait in line at the store. Now think about the way you read the next novel by your favorite author. Different kinds of content and different purposes for reading lead to different reading speeds. By being aware of your reading speed and choosing an approach that makes sense for the text, you can improve your comprehension.

  • What is your goal for reading? Are you trying to find a specific detail? Get an overview of the topic? Learn how to do something? Gain a deep understanding of a concept? Your purpose for reading will affect the way you read, including how fast you try to read.
  • What is your background knowledge about the topic? If you know a lot about something and are just looking to add a few more details to your understanding, you might read more quickly. If a topic is totally new to you and you have to master it, you are likely to read very slowly.
  • If you want to read faster, many digital tools will let you boost your reading speed. Zap Reader is a free, web-based tool. You paste text into the website and set your reading speed. It presents words a few at a time and keeps you moving through the text. The Kindle app has a feature called Word Runner that does the same thing. But just because you can read faster doesn’t mean you should. This type of reading seems best suited to light reading like fiction.

Understanding digital genres

Before you can set an appropriate reading speed, you need to know what kind of material you are looking at. In school, we learn genres like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and historical fiction. But have you ever noticed that blog post is a genre all its own? How about slideshow or vlog? All of these are different genres you might be taking in to get information. Each one has its own purpose and its own flow.

Using text features will help you figure it what kind of text you are looking at and will help you use effective strategies.

  • Slideshow – Um, in my opinion, scroll on by. These are almost always a time suck with little content to offer. Unless it’s recipes, then click your heart out, my friend. Just know this is almost exclusively an entertainment genre. Don’t try to tell yourself you’re getting “background information” or, worse yet, “starting your research.”
  • Blogs – Blog authors work to make their content readable. They understand that their audience skims quickly. Look for short paragraphs, bullet points and lists. Blogs also tend to have a lot of links that might tell you where a blogger got their information, or how to find a similar blog you might want to read. Use the “Managing Links” tips to handle information you want to read later.
  • Video – Youtube allows you to bookmark videos at particular points. Many videos also have closed captions. Both of these features help you nail down specific pieces of information if it’s coming at you quickly. If the content isn’t something you need to learn deeply, did you know you can speed up video play (using the Settings cog wheel) to get through video faster? I do this when I’m working my way through a series of videos by the same creator and I don’t need to hear ALL the details of his projects each time. I’m just checking in to see what’s new. It’s like skimming for video!
  • News article – An important thing to remember about news that comes out on websites is that, unlike the print edition, writers and editors are likely to push out content on a breaking story before all the facts are in. So check the timestamp on an article and look at the bottom of the page to see if there is a note that the article has been updated or corrected. Sometimes the first information available is incomplete or downright wrong. If you are looking to get the facts, make sure you keep checking back as the story unfolds and the author has more time to write clearly.
  • Not-quite-news articles – Website owners with something to sell often buy articles, sometimes very cheaply, to make their website attractive to search engines and readers, and to make the pages look full. Often, website owners are trying to draw you to their page to sell you a product, or to get you to look at advertising that runs beside their articles. Think about the purpose of a website before you invest time (or money) in what they are offering. Is it a big-name website? Do you recognize the name of the authors? Can you figure out what the authors want you to buy or believe? Just because you don’t know the people involved doesn’t mean it’s bad information. But most people don’t spend time and money developing a website because of their love of knowledge. They usually hope to make money somehow. Are they the kind of people you want to support?

Listening to text

One awesome feature of digital text is the ability to listen to it instead of reading with your eyes. Some ebook readers offer text-to-speech support, like iBooks on iOS. Several options are available for having websites, pdfs or other documents read to you.

Chrome browser extensions:

  • Select and Speak – this free extension does exactly what is says. Highlight a section of text with your mouse and click on the play button. You’ll hear a computer-generated voice read the words you chose. Because it’s free, your options are limited, but you can choose a male or female voice and adjust the reading speed.
  • TextHelp’s Read&Write for Google – The paid version of this extension (and the 7-day free trial) offer great features including word prediction for writing, color-coded highlighting for note taking and vocabulary supports, as well as text-to-speech capability. Even once all those paid features go away, though, you still have text-to-speech leftover.
  • Audio books – through the magic of the digital age, just about any recent book, and many classics, that you want to read are available in digital versions. I always start with the digital downloads at my public library. A subscription to a service like audible.com is another great option. Either way you can download the audio book to your computer or mobile device and listen on the go. But what if you’re reading for school? What if you’re expected to quote text or take notes? That’s where it gets a little bit tricky but you can still use good reading comprehension strategies even when you’re listening.
    • Pay attention – Trying to learn from an audiobook by having it on while you do other things on your phone is like trying to learn math by keeping the textbook under your pillow while you sleep. Learning by osmosis doesn’t work that way. Think about reading from an audio book the same way you would read from a hardcover book, make sure you’re sitting in a quiet place. Turn off other distractions like TV, music, and conversation. Have a notebook and pen or a word processing document open.
    • Check your comprehension – At the end of each chapter or anytime you have to stop reading, talk yourself through the author’s main points. You may want to produce a written summary of what you read. Just a few notes about the highlights of each chapter will really help you remember what you read later when it comes time to use the material in your writing or to study for a test. This doesn’t have to be complicated, you can use the notes feature on your cell phone or just a piece of paper in your notebook to record your thoughts.
    • Use rereading – Familiarize yourself with your audiobook device. Most have a single button that lets you rewind 10 or 30 seconds at a time. For longer sections there is a slider that let you go back further or use the table of contents to click on the chapter you want to review.
    • Use bookmarks – Ebook tools usually have a bookmark feature. If you hear something interesting, press the bookmark button so you know the spot you want to go back to later.
    • Familiarize yourself with the layout of the book – Just as when you are reading a book with your eyes, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Start by looking at the table of contents and figure out how many chapters there are. Notice how many pages are in each chapter. Notice how many hours of audio the book is.
    • Reading speed – You may find that listening to an audiobook at regular speed feels too slow. Reading out loud is a slower process for most people than reading in their heads so listening to someone read out loud can be a slower pace than when you read something to yourself. Most audio book readers let you adjust the speed up or down. Many readers find that they can gradually increase the speed from one up to as fast as two or three times the original speed of the text with practice. However, you’re not going to be successful with this if you don’t read actively and have good attention.

When to use paper

Part of my background is that I am an assistive technology specialist. Using technology to teach and learn is one of the main parts of my work. A major part of my teaching philosophy is that students should have access to the technology they need to do their best work. I could not function without audio books, digital copies of text, and tools like speech-to-text and highlighting to get me through reading and writing tasks. In fact, I’m using speech-to-text right now to write this. However, it’s not the perfect choice for everyone or for every task. Knowing when to put away your device and settle in with a paper copy will help you make the most of your reading.

Here are some reasons you might want to read on paper.

  1. The material is visual. I would not think to use a digital copy of a math book or most types of science books. Although many, especially the proprietary ebook developed by the publisher, have great page design and let you see a lot of information at once, in many cases there is something to be said for being able to turn the book from side to side, put your finger on one part of a diagram, or flip rapidly between pages to compare a diagram to a practice problem. This goes along with my preference for doing math work on paper, although I do almost all written work digitally.
  2. The material is very difficult. If you’re working with subject matter you’re not comfortable with, it might make more sense to use a paper copy. For example, when I read an article in a psychological Journal, I prefer to have a paper copy. One reason is the PDF copies are often duplicates of the print page with material set up in two columns. I find it visually confusing to have to scroll up and down the column and then across the page to the second column. I also tend to flip back and forth frequently in text like this as I try to understand the terms the authors are using and remember elements from different parts of a study. Because this material is so complex, and I don’t read it in a linear way, it helps to have a paper copy of the study. I also make a lot of notes when I’m reading something challenging like that including underlining text, and writing words and often question marks in the margin. Although it’s possible to do all of these with a PDF markup tool, I find that I do it more efficiently with a pen and paper.
  3. You are reading to relax. It’s harder to disconnect and enjoy your book when you’re reading on a device with dozens of built-in reminders, and therefore distractions. When you get a new book by your favorite author, sometimes you just want to get lost in that world. That’s one time when reading on paper is a great option. I find this to be especially true when I’m reading old books, like those that existed before ebooks. There’s something about reading Jane Austen on my phone that is jarring. If I read those books on paper instead, I find I am more able to follow the book and to get into the author’s world. For me, it makes it more enjoyable reading experience. Of course, I don’t find a lot of time to pick up a paper back and read, so I often have to save books like this for vacations.
  4. You are reading late at night. There is evidence that the blue light emitted by our device screens can contribute to difficulty falling asleep. If you have to do a lot of your reading late at night, you might be better off reading on paper, or on a device that is not backlit, like some models of Kindle. The reason for this is the blue light emitted by your device tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Experts recommend that you turn off your devices at least an hour before bedtime. So if you have a long day of reading planned, save the stuff on paper for your after-dinner study time. Get all of your reading on the screen out of the way during daylight hours.
  5. You are reading with children. I acknowledge that there is no way to keep screens away from my children in the long run. I think it is important for them to know how to navigate devices, understand material on the screen, and take advantage of the many sources of information available on the internet. I also think it’s important that they understand the benefits of books in paper form. All of the things we talked about are things a child who has never read paper books would not know to look for. By giving kids diverse reading experiences using both hardcover traditional books and ebooks, we can help them to learn how they learn best.

I don’t think that reading on the internet or on our phones is going to do long-term harm to us as readers or thinkers, as some people seem to believe. But I do think that reading in the digital age is necessarily different than when all we had was paper. Remember, reading is not a natural act, something that we evolved to do. Reading of any kind is a technology that humans have invented. Like any technology, it will change and develop over time. Just as we need different skills to drive a car than we need to drive a horse and buggy, we need different skills for digital reading than paper reading. And also like learning to drive a car, we need to give students supervised practice before we expect them to do it well on their own.

Looking for help navigating the different kinds of reading expected of students today? Contact me today for a free 30-minute consultation to see how online tutoring can help!
Is there a downside to reading on screens?

 

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