The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

Reading from a screen harms our ability to concentrate

Linguist Naomi S. Baron speaks to Michael about her new book, "Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World"
Ebooks may be more convenient but are they an improvement on the old-fashioned book? (Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Long live the revolution - the digital revolution, that is!  There is much to celebrate. Take the convenience - with a click of your mouse or a touch of your finger, you have easy access to a newspapers and magazines from around the world. E-books are not only easier on the wallet, but you can carry a library with you simply by downloading your favourite titles onto your iPad or phone. And digital print has made it possible to bring free books and other written materials to young people in developing countries.
(Credit: Jeff Watts)

But like all revolutions, there is a downside. Naomi S. Baron is professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at the American University in Washington, DC. Her expertise is the impact that digital print has on how and what we read.  It is a subject she explores in great detail in her recent book Words Onscreen: the Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

Professor Baron is no luddite bemoaning progress. Like most of us, she spends hours reading online, from keeping up with the latest research in her field, to browsing the latest edition of the New York Times on her smartphone. But she admits that all that digital reading has had a personal cost: "About two years ago, I realized that I was reading fewer books than I had since age ten, and reading them less well - with less attention - and therefore getting less pleasure from reading."
(CBC Books)

Professor Baron is not alone.  According to her research, a diminished ability to concentrate on what you are reading is just one of the downsides to digital reading - regardless of your age. "I did a study in five different countries with university age students in the United States, in Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India. I asked them all kinds of questions, one of which was: what is the medium on which you concentrate best?  So print was a possibility...your cell phone was a possibility...a e-reader...a tablet.  Ninty-two per cent of all the students ages 18 to 26 said, 'I concentrate better when I read in print."

The shrinking of our attention spans has a lot to do with all the distractions that are part of reading online, as a study conducted by Professor Baron reveals.

"One of the questions I asked in my survey was about multitasking: are you more likely to be doing multiple things - besides reading - if you are on a digital device then if you were reading in print? No surprise - depending on the country - it is somewhere between three to four times as likely you'll be multitasking if you're reading on a digital screen. Why? Because for most screens you can get multiple screens.  At the same time you could be doing things, in principle simultaneously, but they're taking your mind away from the task at hand -- which is reading."

The problem with reading digitally is that itencourages us to keep going. Print gives us the leeway to pause and think.- Naomi Baron
It is not only our concentration that is affected. Reading digitally can also impact our comprehension of what we are reading.  Professor Baron reports: "The problem with reading digitally is that it is a medium that encourages us to keep going, to scroll forward, to page forward...not to have a sense, let me go back and see what was it that this character said?  Or what was it that this political figure said a couple of pages back?  Print gives us the leeway to pause and think, where digitally, the medium encourages us to keep going forward."
(CBC Books/Man Booker Prize)
If you're of a certain age, you might be mourning another consequence of the digital revolution: the death of actual books. After all, ebooks are the future, right?  Not so fast, says Professor Baron. "A lot of hype goes into commercial activity. So one of the reasons that we heard that print is dead, or that no baby born  today is going to be reading in print, was that these things were said by people who have a lot at stake in developing electronic reading."  As recent figures on print books vs ebooks show, the death knell for print is premature.  Booknet Canada, a non-profit industry agency, recently reported "the sale of print books in Canada, at 79 per cent of the market, still outstrip that of ebooks at 18 percent." 
2015 Giller Prize shortlist (CBC Books)
Professor Baron says that these figures are more or less in line with what is happening in the US and much of Europe.  And in collecting data on who prefers print to digital, she was surprised by what she discovered: "What's clear from the scientific data, and an incredible amount of anecdotal data from around the world, is that when you talk to young people - and I'm talking particularly about so-called tweens, and then teenagers - you'll find a lot of appreciation for the values of print.  So they will say such things as, 'If I read a print book I can put it on my shelf, and I know that is part of who I am now. When my friends come over I can say, see what I read!'"

The digital print revolution is here to stay, but it doesn't look like print is going the way of the dodo anytime soon."The mantra now is not either/or, but both/and," says Professor Baron, adding, "I find that very healthy".


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