Why Serious Reading Might Not Take a Hit from Computer Screens

Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say,” the Washington Post’s provocative headline proclaimed.

This story sent my little writer’s world into a tailspin. As my Facebook feed fill up with discussion, I couldn’t help but recall the discussion about noted digital contrarian Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” a provocative argument about how we process information and expertise in the digital age.

Unlike Carr’s piece, the body of the Washington Post piece is far tamer in its conclusions. The article’s premise: researchers argue that our “reading” brains may be getting rewired since we spend more time scanning websites and computer screens. Instead of sitting back and enjoying books, we’re now  unable to focus on long and complex stories.

This is duly terrifying if you’re a fan of Western civilization, which has largely passed down its science and arts through books. As you unpack the Post’s story, however, it’s less clear that the computer screens are at the heart of the problem.

A Comprehension Unpacking

Instead of supporting the headline — that serious reading is impacted by reading online – the researchers merely argue that there is anecdotal information to suggest that reading on a screen is different than reading on paper, and those differences may have some impact on how we read.

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.

Just a few paragraphs later, the Washington Post reporter moves further away from the headline, acknowledging that more studies are necessary to gauge why we comprehend print reading better than computer-screen reading.

(Maryanne) Wolf’s next book will look at what the digital world is doing to the brain, including looking at brain-scan data as people read both online and in print. She is particularly interested in comprehension results in screen vs. print reading.

While studies have found that we comprehend more when we read a print book than when we read online, it’s not clear that we’ve parsed out exactly what that means. As a technologist who uses a variety of types of screens, I wondered if the definition of computer screen was even specific enough. Maybe the researchers need to parse out:

  1. Does Amazon’s Kindle, which uses eInk, have a different impact than Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which uses a regular computer screen?
  2. Or maybe it’s not the screen that matters, but the background, e.g. are print and eInk the same in terms of comprehension?
  3. If print and eInk aren’t the same, are eInk and computer screens the same? If not, are there three “screen” reading impacts?
  4. Beyond the issue of computers versus print, does a screen that has no Internet connection and thus no “linking” options  cause the same reading problem as a screen with Internet connection? Is our comprehension problem a “choice problem,” which is to say that given the choice between the “hard” work on reading and the “easy” work of scanning, will humans naturally take the easy route? If you remove that choice, does comprehension return?

As you can see, there are lots of very important questions that need to be sussed out before we begin declaring “reading online” as the evolutionary brain changer.

And despite the headline, neither researcher argues that there is a proven problem, only that there are questions to study.

The Indirect Proposal

This brings us to the biggest red herring in the story, the ominous anecdote that suggests our brains are being rewired (hint: they aren’t) without us realizing. In this section, the Post reporter deftly and indirectly creates a causal link by introducing Kurup’s story while ignoring other factors for that may have caused the problem.

Ramesh Kurup noticed something even more troubling. Working his way recently through a number of classic authors — George Eliot, Marcel Proust, that crowd — Kurup, 47, discovered that he was having trouble reading long sentences with multiple, winding clauses full of background information.

As I read Kurup’s anecdote, I wondered what would have happened if that story was replaced with this one:

As a writing professor, precious few of Brad King’s students can name the six types of verbs, and fewer still can name the objects that are associated with each verb type. He noticed this when his class was working its way through the Best American Feature Writing stories, and his students struggled to comprehend the meaning the authors tried to convey. That struggle, which caused them to real more slowly, frustrated several students.


Had the story been framed with more attention to screen differences, we’d likely have read a piece that discussed the subtle differences in reading screens and the research being done, how that may be tied to the use of Internet-connected devices while reading, and tied together with the fact that in a more media-complex world a lack of grammatical fluency in the reader may make it difficult to comprehend hard thoughts.

This wouldn’t eliminate the comprehension issue, but it may help us better understand how we read now.