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Serious Reading Takes a Hit from Online Scanning and Skimming, and Other Hand-Wringing

Whenever a 7658272558_1d83fa7b32[1]new technology is first made available, someone somewhere is going to point out that many perils and pitfalls. In the past radio, newspapers, and even the printing press has been viewed with alarm, and in this modern age the internet has replaced them all as the boogieman.

The Washington Post joined in the hand-wringing on Sunday with an article that claims reading online is harmful to comprehension. The article is woefully short on actual facts or research, but it is replete with anecdotes like:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

While this might sound worrying, a close reading of the article shows that there isn’t actually much research to back up the anecdotes.

In fact, there is only a single research study mentioned in the article:

Already, there is some intriguing research that looks at that question. A 2012 Israeli study of engineering students — who grew up in the world of screens — looked at their comprehension while reading the same text on screen and in print when under time pressure to complete the task.

The students believed they did better on screen. They were wrong. Their comprehension and learning was better on paper.

That is rather thin evidence for such a wide sweeping claim, isn’t it?

I think so, and what’s more I know of conflicting research that says the opposite. I reported on a similar paper back in 2012:

Jordan Schugar, a professor at West Chester University (outside of Philly), has been studying this for some time now. Back in spring 2011 Jordan ran a study to test the reading comprehension of students in a freshman comp class. A total of 30 students participated, and they self selected into a control group and a test group. The latter were given Nooks to read on. Note that this was in the spring so they didn’t have Nook Touch, so instead the students were in fact given the original Nook to read on (this should be kept in mind, given how clumsy it was to use).

After rigorous analysis, the results showed that the students who read on the Nook had a very slight increase in comprehension. The paper (here) called the difference in scores insignificant, and I’m not going to argue with the folks who have PhDs (not this time anyway). Even though the paper says that the results didn’t show one was better, they did show that neither was worse. So any anecdotes that say otherwise are likely bunk.

So who is right?

I don’t know, but given that I have anecdotal evidence which contradicts the anecdotes in the article, I tend to disbelieve the claims that the new technology is bad.

Similar fears have been expressed about new technology throughout the centuries. They’ve mostly turned out to be nonsense, and I would expect that the current panic over the internet making people stupid will be equally groundless.

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Julanna April 10, 2014 um 12:14 am

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.” I use to do that back in my 20s – so long ago it can’t be blamed on the internet.

Brain changes? | Making Book May 20, 2014 um 10:56 am

[…] stuff this way and they’ll read stuff that way.  The Digital Reader has a typically sane response to the same Washington Post […]

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