Study: Digital Readers Don’t Match up to Real Paper

A new study from Norway’s Stavanger University discovered that recall skills were significantly worse when reading from a Kindle than they were using a paperback version of the same book.

The study took 50 readers and gave them each the same story to read, half on a Kindle and half via paperback.  Readers were then testing on the story’s characters, setting and other objects.

Researchers discovered that participants who had read the story on the Kindle did significantly worse in recalling event order when asked to place 14 events from the story in chronological order.

The study suggests that the digital feel to the Kindle does not offer readers the same mental reconstruction as physical paper.

“When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” said Anne Mangen, a lead researcher for the study. “You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

Of the participants, only two were experienced with the Kindle.  Mangen hopes to recreate the study using more proficient Kindle users.  However, she does not believe the results will be any different.

“I don’t think we should assume it is all to do with habits, and base decisions to replace print textbooks with iPads, for instance, on such assumptions. Studies with students, for instance, have shown that they often prefer to read on paper,” she said.

Last year, Mangen published a paper in which she and other researchers discovered that of the 72 10th-graders who were given texts both on-screen and in print and then asked to take a comprehension exam, “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally”.

And neuroscience agrees.  Research has discovered that when a person reads a text online, they trigger a different part of their brain that focuses on “non-linear” reading, causing the reader to be more likely to skim through the pages than they would be reading the same text in print form.

“They call it a ‘bi-literate’ brain,” Manoush Zomorodi, managing editor and host of WNYC’s New Tech City, says. “The problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.”

Researchers suggest taking time away from the screen each day and making sure to set aside at least 30 minutes for “slow reading” in print form.

Regular slow reading has been found to decrease stress by 68%, increase empathy, and increase sleep.  While a screen makes it difficult for the brain to comprehend that it is time for sleep, reading causes the brain to enter a new zone.