The negative effects of screen reading

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post on the negative effects of screen reading…

I love my Kindle. I like the way it can hold hundreds — make that thousands — of books that I can take with me when I travel, with no need for extra luggage. I like the way I can hold it in bed and read an extra-long book without having to manage any additional weight. I’d like the way I can throw it in my purse and always have something with me to read during unexpected waits.

Several years ago, however, I started noticing that I had a hard time remembering the books I’d read on my Kindle. I keep a reading diary so there is no risk I’ll ever lose track completely, but I was concerned that I couldn’t easily call to mind any visual images associated with the books I’d read.

That’s when I realized that seeing a cover and being able to hold a book in my hands made a difference. A story in the Guardian examined this kind of difficulty. Headlined: “Skim reading is the new normal” and written by Maryanne Wolf, the story discussed declines in literacy during the digital age.

Alarmingly, according to the story, research has found that the negative effects of screen reading can appear as early as fourth and fifth grade. Here’s how Wolf described the one of the problems:

“Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.”

Interestingly, many college students now avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries — Charles Dickens, George Eliot etc. — because they don’t have the patience to read longer, more difficult texts.

“We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it,” Wolf writes. “ A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.”

I think I should be spending less time with my Kindle and more time at the library. (Thanks to my friend Greg, who forwarded this fascinating and disturbing story to me.)

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Sept. 17/18.

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