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The Effects of Digital Technology on Reading

Does reading on a screen interfere with in-depth learning? Yes!

Does reading on a screen interfere with in-depth learning?


Let’s examine four reasons:

  1. Screens lack tactile experience.
  2. Hypertexts are distracting and are hard to navigate.
  3. Shallow reading becomes the norm.
  4. Digital distractions are right there on the machine.

1. Reading on a screen lacks a tactile experience.

Reading is a multi-sensory experience. According to research, the brain’s act of reading uses not just sight, but also the act of touch. There is something about holding a physical page of material that makes it more absorbable. “The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it.” (Carr 2011).

Source: Pexels

2. Reading on a screen makes it harder to navigate and orient oneself, especially with hypertexts.

Hypertexts are one of the web’s most important tools. Indeed, hypertexts are the reason that the web is called “the web.” The user jumps from one spot to another with the click of the mouse, and then to another, and then to another—forming a web of jumps. Often, exactly where you are, and how you got there, may not be exactly clear. That’s fine if you are just trying to continually refine your search for specific information.

However, hypertexts seem to be a major detractor when attempting to read a longer, cohesive text. “Research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” (Carr 2011) As just one of many research examples, 35 adults were given a short story to read in the usual linear text format and were compared to another 35 adults who were given the same story to read in a version with hypertexts such as would be found on a web page. Even though the hypertext readers took longer, 3 out of 4 reported problems following the text, compared to just 1 out of 10 readers who were given the linear text.

In addition to hypertexts, there is another feature of reading on the screen that makes it harder to find where you are while reading. Given a screen’s ability to scroll, to alter the size of the text, to alter how many columns it presents, etc. (i.e. continually change what the reader sees), it is hard to form a reliable visualization of the material. You can’t just say to yourself, “It was at the bottom of the left side of the page towards the back of the book,” because the next time you access the material, it may not be in the same spot visually. Long articles are not broken down into pages, further confounding the reader’s sense of where she is in the piece. All of this matters, since “a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text leads to better reading comprehension” (Greenfield 2015). The miniature screen on a smartphone only compounds the problem. Many people find it easier to flip through the pages of a book or printout than to relocate the spot on a screen.

These negative effects of hypertext reading are not inevitable, though. Using a navigational support structure may be helpful. Certain reader characteristics, such as the ability to see the “big picture,” prior knowledge of the subject, and increased interest in the subject all help mitigate the confusion. (Loh 2015)

3. Digital technology may lead to shallower comprehension.

In traditional printed books, the author has (presumably) spent considerable time devising a logical story or line of reasoning. As the reader works his way through the book, he can stop and ponder the unfolding material. When he is finished thinking about what he just read, the book is still there—ready to lead the reader again along a lengthy, fully thought out trail of logic. Hypertexts are the death of an author-driven line of reasoning. They take you all over, from place to place, author to author, subject to subject—and rarely return you to your jumping-off point of that well thought out, comprehensive text that you started out with. Instead, the viewer finds himself skimming sites (i.e., shallow reading) as he jumps around looking for the next quick rewarding tidbit. Indeed, the average web page holds the reader for 18 seconds.

Search engines are part of the problem as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love Google. I couldn’t function without it. Or PubMed for my medical research. Or Amazon’s book search feature. It’s just that they take us right to the direct hit, which for many of us is all we read. This, again, avoids the surrounding logic intended by the author, and we may also miss the context of that direct search hit. A review of university student reference citations in their research papers showed that 46% were to the first page of the source, and 77% were to the first three pages. College students doing research almost never get past the first three pages! (Baron 2015) This is yet another source of potential shallow reading.

After conducting a survey of the research habits of 400 Canadian students, the study authors concluded students felt that online materials were fine for picking up specific elements of materials, but that for engaging in substantial work, print books were preferred. Print gave a sense of the whole (Baron 2015).

There is concern that the reliance upon shallow reading may interfere with the development of deep reading skills such as thoughtful pondering, critical analysis, and inferential thinking. It is feared that neurological connections required for deep reading such as brain areas involved in visual processing and phonological processing may not be made in those people who learn primarily via shallow reading (Loh 2015).

4. Reading on a digital device is distracting.

Reading on an internet-enabled device or with preloaded video games is highly distracting. Ninety percent of students felt that they were more likely to be multitasking while reading digitally, while only 1% felt that a hardcopy would make them more likely to multitask. Nine percent felt the medium (electronic or paper) didn’t matter when it came to multitasking.

Readers clearly prefer hard copy reading (even if it weren’t a better learning tool)

Although there is plenty of evidence that digital reading, especially online, interferes with learning, the evidence is still somewhat inconclusive. It is pretty conclusive, though, that readers prefer reading on a hard copy vs. via digital screen by 89% vs. 11%, and will choose a hard copy over a digital version if given the choice. The numbers are fairly constant whether surveying US, Japanese, or German students.

It appears that the length of the material plays into the preference. Students didn’t care which medium is used when engaging short texts such as newspaper articles. However, 92% of US students preferred hardcopy for long schoolwork texts as well as for long pleasure reading texts. Students prefer the experience of feeling the pages, being able to know where they are in the text, the ability to flip back and forth, and even the smell of the book. They liked the idea of personalizing their possession with handwritten notes. They appreciated less eyestrain. (Baron 2015) They also appreciated not being distracted by all of those things that their digital device could take them to with a click of a button.

Neuroscientist Baron concludes, “Given these findings, I can only wonder why the educational establishment is pushing students toward digital reading.” (Baron 2015)

Modified from Digital Kids: How to Balance Screen Time and Why It Matters © Martin Kutscher, MD. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers (2017).


Baron, N. (2015) Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carr, N. (2011) What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Greenfield, S. (2015) Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. New York: Random House.

Loh, K.. (2015) ‘How has the Internet reshaped human cognition.’ The Neuroscientist pp.1-15.

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