Paper vs Pixels. Does it matter how we read? Part 3.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The Book

She’s really cute.

A digital native if you like.

Today, she’s about three and a half. And if you watched the video last post, it showed said cutie with the iPad that didn’t work. She tried vainly to swipe the page of a magazine, expecting it to behave in the way her iPad behaved.

Clearly used to the moving images and responsive screen she was confused at the magazine with images that didn’t move and a screen that didn’t respond. The magazine was, in contrast to the iPad, dead.

But books aren’t dead, and with good reason. They still serve a vital purpose.

Our story

We’re continuing our discussion on the increasingly vigorous debate around reading on paper versus reading on-screen.

Last post we looked at how the physicality of books and their topographical features give them advantages over online and e-reader material, in that they provide for the reader, and their brain, various things to hang on to, both literally and figuratively. This time, we’re talking primarily about books versus online reading, rather than versus e-readers.

No, the future of humanity may not hinge on one or the other. Yes, there are important personal, educational and even health implications, which is where we head today, and the next two posts.

By the way, I’m publishing these  in quick succession as they really ought to be read as one long post… that just looked a little daunting in one post.

Some key results

In the quick and dirty survey we ran, 73% of you said that you spend more time reading electronically than from paper. While this no doubt includes mandatory work email and in some cases personal Kindles, it does show that we are spending an increasing amount of time reading online.

And we need to balance that against the 63% of you who said that you prefer reading from paper rather than electronically. Much screen reading it seems is by habit, routine or expedience, rather than choice, such as with email.

I’d venture that most people read most emails online because it’s fast and convenient, rather than printing them first. Moreover, it’s simply quicker or cheaper to read online news than to get a newspaper (remember them?) subscription.

Ease of reading is certainly a pivotal point, especially as we spend more and more time online. But 83% of you noted that as the material gets more complex, you find it easier to read from paper. 72% of you claimed that reading from paper helps you remember better, while 80% noted that reading online is more distracting.

Sitting in these unscientific but commonly reported results are some important considerations.


Israel, 2011.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Put a group of volunteer students together and divide them into two groups, so you can give them a quick test based on text they have just read. They’ll need to read, comprehend and remember.

Give half of the students only seven minutes to review the material, which they can do online or on paper.

Give the other half of the students as much time as they want. They, too, can review online or on paper.

Test them.

Under the time constraint condition, there was no performance difference between students who reviewed the text on-screen, and those who reviewed the text on paper; the students performed equally well.

For the other group however, those who could take as much time as they wanted, the students who reviewed the text on paper outperformed those who didn’t by approximately 10%.

What’s going on?

Certainly, knowing you have very limited time can change the way you approach material. For some people, pressure like that scatters what they do while for others it focuses them.

In the first task, with only seven minutes, there is barely time to focus for long enough to start creating long-term memories. Instead, these students made significant use of working memory.

Testing this group is testing a group that has crammed for an exam, using a familiar strategy called massed learning. It’s good for short-term recollection, but generally ineffective. They recall it, but they don’t remember it.

The second group had opportunity to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory through sustained, focused, effortful activity, spaced over time. In other words, how we learn best, using spaced learning, which facilitates remembering and knowing, rather than just recollection or recognition.

Of course, those who study harder over a prolonged period get better results than those who cram. But within the long-term group, why better results on paper?

One explanation was that those students who got to manage their time, set about the work in a much more studious fashion than those who had only seven minutes. Sure, probably true.

There’s also the suggestion that our attitude to onscreen material is different from our attitude to paper, in that we’re more casual, or less studious, with onscreen material, just because it’s onscreen.

Those students reviewing online then, were more casual and less studious about it, than those who used paper, even though they had as much time as they wanted. Also, maybe true.

But there’s a much more significant reason. The time constraint didn’t highlight the attitude they brought to the task, so much as reflect the different way we go about learning onscreen, versus on paper.

And it’s here, that the argument starts to get a bit clearer.

How hard are you trying?

E-readers aside, for reasons we discussed last time, reading online is tiring. There are more distractions, plenty of novelty, moving things, sometimes noisy things, all of which are a drain on attention.

The brain orients to novelty, switching us from the task at hand to the new thing, which costs us effort and time (and why your kids should turn off all alerts, messaging, Facebook and such while they do homework, and schoolwork). It’s called, funnily enough, a switching cost. It immediately depletes our attention and we take time to get back on task.

The more we pay attention to these distractions, the worse we become at ignoring them. Distractions beget distractibility. But ignoring these distractions also takes mental effort. Not doing something takes more energy than giving in sometimes. Not ignoring them draws us away from the task. Lose lose.

Reading online requires more effort than paper, and the brain has only a limited amount of effort it can expend. As energy depletes, so does our performance, so the harder it is, the more energy we have to expend, and so on. Reading online saps our mental energy faster than a book does, so we have to try harder to read online.

And while we’re there, our comprehension of what we’re reading, and our memory of it, is generally impaired.

So given the effort it takes, it might be unsurprising to learn that a brain scan of someone reading online is markedly different from that of someone reading a book.

The reason is that online reading forces us into different reading habits, because the information is deliberately structured differently. Those habits require different mental processes, and result in different mental outcomes, most of which is a lack of transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory or, in other words, a failure to learn.

And it hinges on what we do when we start to read a page, or a screen. Exactly how we do that, is in Paper vs Pixels 4.

So here’s the take home bit

Pay attention to how you typically read online, versus how you read a book. Keep it in mind for when you read the next post

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Orient response, Switching cost

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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