When Reading: The Print Over the Digital Screen

Newspapers and digital tablet displaying the news with morning coffee on a rustic wooden table.

Just some few months ago, we were celebrating the dominance of the physical book. Michelle Obama‘s record sales and the practicability of the physical book seems to demonstrate the commodity that many Americans preferred. Now, a 2019 study confirms to us what we already knew. The print is better than the digital screen.

The Print Over The Screen

A New Study Supports the Print

First reported by Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report, a study by Virginia Clinton at the University of North Dakota proposes that people who read from digital screens tend to have a poorer reading performance versus those who read print writings. As Barshay describes, many of Clinton’s students said that they preferred reading in print than a digital screen. This piqued Clinton’s curiosity, prompting her to review the literature that compared the performance of reading in print and on-screen. Although a small number of studies were used for this review, it still showed significant results:

“Reading from paper appeared to yield better performance on assessments than reading from screens. There were no reliable differences in reading times by medium, indicating that readers performed slightly better with paper, even though similar amounts of processing and effort appeared to be involved with reading from paper and screens. In other words, reading from paper appears to be more efficient in terms of performance outcomes than reading from screens.”

Clinton’s work is revealing, in times when cellphones seem to be the main conductors of news, it could be inferred that reading has become faster and easier – but not necessarily more effective. From magazines to newspapers, the perception that print is dying has been widely spread. It’s because of these changes that many digital-friendly media, like Buzzfeed, have risen to fame. Major book publications and journals now tend to prefer the eBook because of its cheap and easy-to-do creation. But, as Professor Clinton’s work shows, the story might be the other way around when it comes to reading or have a deep understanding of the written words. Mrs. Barshay arrives at the same conclusion in her article regarding Clinton’s findings and others:

“The mounting research evidence against screens is important because it clashes with textbook publishers’ long-term plans to emphasize digital texts. Pearson, the largest textbook publisher in North America, announced in July 2019 that it was moving to a “digital-first” strategy. Books will still be available to rent but students will be discouraged from buying them by higher prices, fewer updates and limited availability.” 

The Vivid Life of Words

What other happenings can tell us about the dominance of the print over the screen? Look no further than the seismic rise of libraries among Millennials in the US. In a Pew Research Center poll in 2016, Millennials were the dominant generation that was keeping public libraries alive. Only 43% of the always “hard-working” Baby Boomer used public libraries versus 53% of Millennials. What’s more interesting is that college libraries were kept out of the study. So there’s the suspicion that the numbers could have gone higher.

Cognitively, we spend almost the same brain regions for reading in both mediums. But there are still some factors that account for the dominance of the print. When reading a book, one gets a sense of feeling lost in the words, of words impacting the core of our humanity. Even the semblance of a print article gives us a signal of calmness and intimacy with the print word. This is the same thing that the late Oliver Sacks noticed in his essay “Libraries:”

“Reading is a hugely complex task, one that calls upon many parts of the brain, but it is not a skill humans have acquired through evolution (unlike speech, which is largely hard-wired). Reading is a relatively recent development, arising perhaps 5,000 years ago, and it depends on a tiny area of the brain’s visual cortex.”

Sacks further add about the pathways in the brain and reading:

“We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading, and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.”

Take Out a Good Print Magazine and Forget About the Screen

And in a sense, that is what the print tends to accomplish over the screen. The fast swiping, multitasking universe that we live in does not permit that calm pause of elation after reading a magnificent word or even a paragraph. With the screen, it seems that we’re always in a hurry to finish or to get ahead of it. In the print, you can still do that, but it partially anticlimactic. There’s a sense of suspense and concentration that permits us to look a little bit longer to the statement of others. For once, we should celebrate that the print is still alive and well, and that the digital hasn’t found the answer to its destruction. 

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