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Q&A: Reading on Screens

Students read on screens and in print

AU's Naomi Baron is researching how consuming information in print versus on screens impacts the very notion of how we read. Among her findings so far, the College of Arts and Sciences professor points to some surprising responses from Millennials. AU sat down with Baron to discuss the benefits and limitations of digital reading as well as the appeal of e-books.

1) AU: Why are you interested in this subject?

NB: I've been intrigued for a very long time about the ways that technology affects how we use spoken and written language and, as a result, how we interact with one another and who we are as individuals. What I'm focusing on now is reading. It turns out that these days, we probably read more words than we used to before the coming of modern communication technologies. The question is, what kind of reading are we doing, now that so much of it takes place on laptops, e-readers, tablets, and mobile phones? Is the sort of reading we do onscreen changing the notion of what it means to read? And if so, are these changes for the good?

2) AU: How are you conducting this research?

NB: Over the past two-and-a-half years, my students and I have administered three sets of surveys involving reading on screens versus in print, gathering data from American University undergraduates. The surveys asked such questions as "Are you more likely to re-read something if you are reading on a screen or in hard copy?"; "Are you more likely to remember what your read if you read it on a screen or in hard copy?"; and "Are you more likely to be multitasking if you are reading onscreen than in hard copy?" We also asked four open-ended questions: "What is the one thing you like most about reading on a screen?"; "What is the one thing you like least?"; "What is the one thing you like most about reading in hard copy?"; and "What is the one thing you like least?"

3) AU: What are some of the major findings from the surveys?

NB: The data have been fascinating, especially in light of the fact the subjects were all between 18 and 24 years old—Millennials. Some of the things they reported weren’t what you would think Millennials would say. The students indicated they were more likely to re-read something if reading in hard copy. They also reported being more likely to remember what they read in hard copy. Ninety percent said they were more likely to be multitasking when reading on a screen. Why is multitasking an important issue? There is an incredible amount of evidence, going back at least half a century, confirming that if you are working on two cognitive tasks at the same time (or switching back and forth between them), your performance is worse than if you do the tasks one at a time. Now think about reading. If you are multitasking when you are reading (a very strong likelihood if you’re reading on a digital device, especially one with an internet connection), there’s less of a chance you are mentally focused on the text.

4) AU: How are people responding to the choice between reading on screens vs. reading in hard copy?

NB: What's really astounding is that almost every published psychology study indicates that people prefer to read in hard copy, even though standard comprehension tests suggest they score about the same if reading a print text or one onscreen. (Since these were psychology experiments, the screen condition didn’t allow them to multitask.) Most of these subjects were Millennials. What are young people telling us? They are not as enamored with reading on digital screens as we assume. Looking at data from subjects in my own studies, we see comments like “I know it’s environmentally better to read on a screen, but I really like reading in hard copy” or “I learn more when I read in hard copy, I don't get distracted.” In a nutshell, today’s college students, who have been raised on digital devices, often are saying they believe they will do a better job and like it better if they read in hard copy.

5) AU: Why are e-books so appealing compared to hard copies?

NB: First off, e-books are generally less expensive than print. As any student today knows, that price differential also applies to textbooks. Yet while digital may save students money, do students learn as much? When you use your computer, iPad, or mobile phone, there’s a good chance you will be lured into multitasking. After all, these devices invite users to flit from one screen to another. Devices with an Internet connection are also very handy for doing searches. And when you keep interrupting yourself to do searches, you rarely concentrate on the linear text. In fact, there are data showing that people don’t actually “read” webpages. Trying to read serious, continuous prose is an activity for which printed pages are ideal. Reading the same text on a digital device created for other purposes (like searching and multitasking) is not. As a result, when we read on these two different platforms, we tend not to read the same way.

6) AU: What type of reading does reading on screens encourage?

NB: The kind of reading that works really well on a screen is short-form. Reading longer amounts of text doesn’t. In my studies, students reported that if there is something short to read, it is fine to read on a digital device, but if the text is longer, they'd rather read it in hard copy. They understand if you want to process a continuous flow of text and don't want to be interrupted, reading on a platform that doesn’t encourage distraction is the way to go.

7) AU: Can you give explain further how reading on screens may be changing what it means to read?

NB: As I’ve said, digital technologies with Internet connections work very well for locating bits of information. Because these technologies are now ubiquitous, search is increasingly becoming a way of life. You see these trends in education today—both higher education and K-12. Increasing emphasis is being put not on what you know, but whether you know where to find things. I tell my students that when the electricity goes out, I can still write. And think. And know. Can they? Closely tied in with this shift to search as a reading strategy are two related changes. The first is diminished interest in (and perhaps capacity for) what’s been called deep reading—that is, carefully reading a text, thinking about it, wrestling with the author’s arguments, mulling over a well-turned phrase. The second is an increased amount of what I call one-off reading.

8) AU: Can you explain one-off reading further?

NB: In one-off reading, you approach a text with the assumption that you will read it once and be done with it. Since you’re not going to read it again, there’s no point in annotating the work. (Annotations have long been a hallmark of deep reading.) How much of our reading is becoming one-off? Is it more than in earlier times? While it’s hard to find anything like accurate statistics, it’s pretty clear that if we don’t own a physical book, if we haven’t personalized it with our comments, why not read it once and toss it – like the thrillers we buy for long plane rides. Therefore, how seriously we take what authors have to say, the depth with which we engage with their thoughts, tends to be compromised. The ways in which individuals and societies do their reading are shifting, and not necessarily in a positive way.

9) AU: What are some of the benefits of reading on digital screens?

NB: Digital screens can be highly beneficial, especially for reading on the run (waiting in line at Starbucks, sitting on the subway). Tablets, e-readers, and mobile phones are lightweight, and you don’t need to lug heavy books around. Besides the convenience factor, digital reading technologies are beginning to make it possible for people who don’t have access to world-class libraries to still read their contents—and free of charge. Two important initiatives are the National Digital Public Library in the U.S. and the EU’s Europeana. That’s an equalizing process that only digital reading can bring.