Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading on paper or screen - what's the difference?

IMG_4227 by Jemimus, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by Jemimus

I often get into discussions about the pros and cons of reading print or screen texts. It's an emotional issue as many book lovers feel threatened by a digital takeover and the possible demise of books and newspapers. Many find screen reading a strain and prefer to print longer texts they find on the net. Many find digital formats lack the feel and soul of the print version and enjoy the tactile appeal of a book. I read both varieties and although I still prefer print I realize that it's largely a matter of what you are accustomed to. I can't see printed media disappearing in the near future though just take a look at the music industry to see an equally radical change that took place without many people really noticing - our music collections have moved from the shelves of our living rooms to our mobiles and record stores have almost disappeared from most high streets. Certainly there is discussion about how the sound quality of digital mp3 files is far inferior to that of vinyl records but for the vast majority that doesn't seem to matter. So what about the differences between print and screen reading?

I found an article from last year by Cindy Orr called Paper Vs. Screen—Does It Matter Anymore? She reviews research evidence for a significant difference between screen and print reading and finds that previously perceived differences are slowly disappearing.
  • We're reading much faster on the screen today than a few years ago and studies indicate that the gap is narrowing into insignificance.
  • Comprehension levels are about the same even if many people think they understand a print text better.
  • We feel much more comfortable with screen reading especially with the advent of tablets.
  • Our reading behaviour, in terms of eye movements, is very similar between print and screen.
A BBC article, Young people 'prefer to read on screen', describes the rapid shift to screens among children, with over 50% preferring screen to print, and how this affects reading ability.

"Younger children who read printed books as well as used computers were more likely to have higher reading levels than those who only read on screen, the study said. Although this gap did not apply to those children who used tablet computers or e-readers."

If the differences are melting away our perceptions are not changing as fast. Maybe there are other factors that affect our attitude to screen reading. A good summary of such factors is presented in an article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. One important aspect is the tactile aspects of a print book or magazine. We can feel the weight of the book, easily see how far we have progressed and can quickly flick the pages to see where the present chapter ends. We also have spatial aspects of print reading, remembering where we were in the book when something happened or remembering the layout of a particular page. Screen reading is often seen as putting a strain on the eyes and affecting concentration but new studies suggest that these problems occur when using a computer where scrolling and mouse clicks are necessary. The latest tablets reproduce the feeling of a print book much more realistically and few find reading a strain on such screens.

Another interesting factor is that maybe we treat screen content as somehow less "serious" than print and are not prepared to concentrate as hard. Digital content has lots of tempting links to check and your are likely to have other applications open at the same time leading to all the tempting distractions of social media and e-mail that I wrote about in last week's post.

"An emerging collection of studies emphasizes that in addition to screens possibly taxing people's attention more than paper, people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. Based on a detailed 2005 survey of 113 people in northern California, Ziming Liu of San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts—they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper, and are more likely to read a document once, and only once."

Despite all this I still feel that reading is reading whatever the delivery medium. I'm sure you can read as deeply on a screen as you do in a print book but you have to make a conscious decision to concentrate. Digital reading can be distracting if you choose to keep the distractions active but the same is true with print. If you try to read a complex print book with the TV on, music in your headset or with friends or family in the same room your concentration will be equally impaired. Once again it's about focus.


  1. If I've read something that I want to revisit at a later date, I have to remember where I left it. With a hard copy that isn't so much trouble as when it's a virtual copy. Because finding a physical item is just a question of looking around the area where I've been. It's a much more complex task to locate a file that doesn't have any physically distinguishing features to help you locate it. Maybe I'm just organizationally-challenged but I know I'm not alone.

    1. Really? Maybe there's a generational gap or something because I find the complete opposite is true for me. Hit 'Ctrl + F' and you can track down a specific title or related titles amongst hundreds to thousands of notes that I have created, or filed previously. Can't say the same for thousands of loose sheets of paper lying around in the house, possibly in a file, or in several different files.