Digital reading favors dispersion and makes it difficult to understand abstract concepts.

The i with the ene, in, the eme with the i, my ... in-mi-gra ... bah, whatever it's called.

As computers, tablets, mobiles and e-books gradually replace paper books and newspapers, many researchers wonder if we are missing something by the wayside. According to some studies, the answer is that before the screen we lose part of our ability to understand what we read.

An investigation carried out in the United States makes it clear that digital text readers interpret information worse. The work includes several experiments with the two types of reading in which more than 300 individuals participated.

One of the tests consisted of reading descriptions of fictional Japanese cars and indicating which of them was the top-of-the-line. 66% of those who had read the information on paper answered correctly, while only 43% of digital readers were correct even though the text was the same.

Another exercise proposed reading a fictional story. In this case, the participants also showed a better overall understanding of the paper version. However, when it came to remembering specific details, those who had read it on a screen scored better. In other words, the digital reader does not lose the ability to retain data, but has more difficulty understanding everything.

Recapping the data, researchers Geoff Kaufman of Carnegie Mellon University and Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College conclude that abstract concepts are best understood on paper.

Elena Jiménez, a researcher at the University of Granada and president of the Spanish Association for Reading Comprehension, explains to EL ESPAÑOL that in reality “the process of reading is not modified by the fact that it is carried out on paper or digitally”. However, the difference is in the factors surrounding the reading, which exert a direct influence on the reader who looks at the screen. “We tend to be more dispersed because we have hyperlinks and we pay more attention to images than to words, so the key is that the reading process is interrupted,” he points out.

In short, “reading is carried out in the same way, but it changes attention and motivation”, because “the brain takes shortcuts”. As he often confirms with his students, digital culture is changing the way we read, our heads are looking for stimuli and it is increasingly difficult to maintain attention beyond a few seconds.

Not all digital readings are the same

In any case, not all digital readings are the same. The devices in which we read electronic books, called eReaders, allow us to have an experience very similar to reading on paper. They have nothing to do with a website full of claims, in which advertisements assault us, images and videos and links distract us, invite us to continuous interruptions. Therefore, it is presumable that reading comprehension differs greatly from one case to another.

For this reason, Elena Jiménez has developed a classification of digital texts that distinguishes, first of all, between static and dynamic. The first ones are “plans, similar to those published on paper”, in which it is only possible to underline and take annotations and there are no hyperlinks that refer to information outside the text. On the other hand, dynamic texts are enriched with multimedia links, they are discontinuous and interactive. In addition, the relationship between the sender and the receiver can become very complex, allowing the reader to edit the text, as in wiki pages.

Is there reason to worry about the consequences of this new digital culture? An investigation carried out in Mexico with university students came to the conclusion that they did not have enough reading comprehension skills to complete the level of studies at which they were enrolled. When analyzing the cognitive processes involved in understanding texts, the authors found that students obtained worse results in most of the variables if they had read digital information than if they had consulted a printed text. Therefore, they claim to establish “new learning strategies” for this new era.

Writing: also better on paper

Students may want to take notes on this research to improve their academic results, but they should do so on paper. Classrooms are filled with computers because many young people have changed the traditional way of taking notes, but a study published in Psychological Science indicates that the use of the laptop implies a more superficial processing of the information.

Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California compared students who took notes by hand with others who used the computer, and the latter were much less adept at processing complex concepts. It appeared that those who used the laptop were more likely to transcribe classes verbatim, while students who wrote by hand processed the information better and rephrased it in their own words, which is very beneficial for learning.