Screen reading vs. print reading

I’ve been doing some research recently about reading from screens – and particularly about whether reading from screens is more difficult than reading from paper.

Plenty of people argue that screen reading is more difficult than paper reading, but I haven’t found much evidence to support their claims.

The discussions that I’m coming across suggest that screen reading encourages:

  • More skipping and skimming
  • A reduced concentration span
  • A reduced ability to think deeply about information
  • A ‘staccato’ quality to thinking. (Dubose and Gray both write about this within the context of legal writing and reading.)

These discussions tend to be based on the writers’ personal reflections about their own reading and thinking. I can’t help but wonder whether we’re seeing a bit of nostalgia for the ‘good old days of print’, and whether the differences are more imagined than real.

I’ve only looked at a few research papers on the topic, but they seem to conclude that reading performance isn’t significantly different on paper or screen. However, Holzinger et al, in a 2011 study of hospital staff, found that, while reading performance was just as good, reading preference was not. Their participants strongly preferred to read from paper – and this preference was independent of age, computer expertise, field of work, and topic knowledge.

I’ve also seen some research by Ackerman and Goldsmith (also from 2011) that suggests screen readers may be less successful than print readers in regulating their reading time and predicting what they’ve learned. Interestingly, screen readers tend to be over-confident about what they learn, and this leads to them performing a little worse on tests.

In my own work, I’m aware that screen reading is slightly different from paper reading. But neither category is a unified, simple group. For example, reading an academic article on screen has more in common with reading an academic article on paper than it does with reading a novel or newspaper on screen.

These days, I find myself comfortable in many different reading environments, and I choose one to suit my current task and location. I almost always read detailed material (like academic articles) on screen, with an open Word document that allows me to take notes. I find this much more efficient and cost effective than printing out the material before reading.

The differences between screen and paper reading make for interesting debate. But it’s important that we don’t get caught up in blaming the screen for our own inattention. And I think that document type (that is, genre), and our expectations of that document, might be a more important influence on our reading behaviour than the chosen medium of screen or print.

Thanks to Mary Dyson for pointing me in the direction of some useful research on this topic.