Study Suggests Screen Reading Makes Us Lose the Big Picture

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Even in the digital age, some people prefer physical books for their feel, smell, and other nostalgic qualities. Now a recently published study reported by The Washington Post suggests that getting our stories from a printed page instead of a screen helps us better comprehend the broader concepts of what we're reading.

Authors Geoff Kaufman of Carnegie Mellon and Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth collected data from more than 300 participants in a series of studies. They started by assigning them PDF and printout versions of a David Sedaris short story to read followed by a brief quiz. When answering questions about details from the piece, readers who had looked at the digital file scored higher. But when asked to make inferences based on what they'd read, the printout readers performed much better.

These results were reinforced in a different study where the researchers asked subjects to read data they had made up about hypothetical cars. Two-thirds of participants who had gotten their information from a print-out answered correctly when asked which car was best. When the same data was read by a different group from a computer screen, only 43 percent of them got it right. 

Both studies suggest that readers are more like to lose sight of the bigger picture when reading from a screen and instead focus on the details. Researchers did find one trick around this trend: For the car data test, when digital readers were given a task that prompted them to think abstractly they were more successful in answering the final question. 

This isn't the first research Kaufman and Flanagan have published on the topic. For a study published in 2013 [PDF], they looked at digital games versus physical games and found that players using the iPad version were worse at using long-term strategies. The effect of being consumed "in the now" when using a screen appears to carry over no matter what type of content you're looking at.

Even earlier research, like this study published in 2005, suggests that screen-reading requires more mental energy, making it harder to retain what you've read once you've finished. Media consumers have also been found to approach digital content with a less academically minded attitude than they do with the printed word. Perhaps we'll get better at reading from screens the more used to it we become, but for now, don't let anyone knock you for holding onto your book collection.

[h/t The Washington Post