Screen vs. Paper: Today’s Reading Dilemma

1. Introduction

The correlation between emerging trends in reading and writing and the usage of portable digital devices is evident, particularly among younger generations whose members increasingly view literacy through the lens of technology (Noemi Bresó-Grancha et al. 2022). This movement alters conventional information acquisition methods (Baron 2017) and presents challenges for educators and educational institutions.

Modern content, engineered for quick consumption, significantly diverges from the detailed commitment typically associated with reading.

The biggest challenge to reading attentively on digital platforms is that we largely use digital devices for quick action: Look up an address, send a Facebook status update, grab the news headlines (but not the meat of the article) ,multitask between online shopping and writing an essay. When we go to read something substantive on a laptop or e-reader, tablet, or mobile phone, our now-habitualized instincts tell us to move things along (Baron 2017).

With the shift towards readily accessible online information in easy-to-digest formats, young people increasingly regard traditional reading as obsolete and redundant. This phenomenon demands a detailed examination of how such practices affect mental abilities and prompts discussions on the future of literacy, the impact of technological advances, and the value of classical reading.

2. Educational Challenges: Implications for Early Literacy and University Learning

At the beginning of the school year, newspaper articles highlight a growing concern: an increasing number of children are delaying their start in primary school due to insufficient early literacy skills, notably in speech and language proficiency. This troubling trend is further compounded by the rising incidence of attention disorders and a noticeable deficiency in social skills, alongside a heightened demand for personal assistants within educational settings. Researchers greatly attribute these issues to the excessive screen time children are exposed to from an early age. “We are starting to see technology’s effect on child development and adult reading skills – and the research isn’t optimistic,” says Maryanne Wolf (2020), an acknowledged expert on the science of reading.

The proliferation of smartphones has intensified educational challenges, prompting elementary school principals to advocate banning mobile phone use during class. The movement towards reintegrating conventional learning tools – paper and pencils – is gaining momentum. Highlighting this trend, The Guardian reports on findings from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, which suggest that digital tools more often hinder than facilitate student learning, advocating for a renewed emphasis on acquiring knowledge through printed materials and direct teacher instruction (Crace 2023). This stance is particularly noteworthy, coming from one of the leading countries in educational digitalization. Earlier research, such as Mangen et al.’s (2013) study in Norwegian schools examining electronic interfaces’ influence on reading skills, showed that students who read printed texts scored higher in comprehension tests compared to their peers who used screens, which also led to increased stress and fatigue. Therefore, Natalia Kucirkova, professor of reading and children’s development, concludes: “We need to have a more nuanced language about when reading digitally or print is beneficial and when not” (Sparks 2021).

The issues underlined above are already affecting students entering university. When university professors come in contact with these youngsters, who have developed a confident attitude towards reading and acquiring knowledge and information, they often find it challenging to reshape their reading and study skills and habits at this late stage in their educational development.

Lately, many professors in higher education have complained about the “mobile phone generation.” Its members are increasingly difficult to work with due to their declining reading and writing skills and lack of focus, exhibiting what professor of literature Mark Edmundson (2013) calls “cognitive impatience” – “My students tell me that they’re experts in paying attention to many things at once: It’s not a problem at all (…) our students are nomads, on the move all day.” Daniel Goleman (2013) describes cognitive impatience as “continuous partial attention,” a state where the overwhelming influx of information from multiple sources leads to only partial focus on any task. Our attention becomes divided – we seem focused but are actually unable to profoundly engage with or reflect on the content. Edmundson (2013), for example, noted that many of his students avoid nineteenth- and twentieth-century classical literature, as they lack the patience required for the extended texts.

In an online age in which students are used to instantly accessible information, often audio-visual content, they resist more traditional teaching methods and materials, including books and other long-format texts. Even visiting and using libraries is no longer comfortable for some young people. The impact on their academic performance is evident, as they often struggle to articulate their opinions coherently in both oral and written forms. Additionally, students frequently require assistance with ordinary academic tasks, such as finding relevant books and papers, preparing and giving presentations, and writing essays, in order to successfully complete their courses.

As a result, these issues set higher demands on the organization of lectures, study materials, and exams.

3. Technology and Attention Disorders: Exciting, but Overexciting

Because the digital era is marked by technologies that captivate our attention while paradoxically overloading our cognitive functions (Levitin 2015), neuroscientists and educators are increasingly questioning how exposure to different types of media affects our ability to absorb knowledge, distinguish truth from falsehood, consider diverse perspectives, and transform information into wisdom (Wolf 2020). This ongoing investigation is crucial for developing future educational strategies.

In a 2023 interview with Alyson Klein, Wolf discussed how the printed page serves as both a repository of knowledge and a bridge to deeper understanding. In her seminal work, Reader, Come Home (2018a), she delves into the transformative impact of reading on the brain, challenging the notion that reading is an innate skill. Instead, Wolf argues that reading is an acquired proficiency developed through extensive practice. She is particularly interested in what happens to the reader’s brain when reading occurs in digital surroundings, compared to reading a text written on paper.

Printed books offer a distinct form of engagement that electronic platforms cannot match. They provide a distraction-free environment that improves interaction with the text – physically annotating margins, underlining passages, and the simple act of turning pages – actions that enrich the reading experience and enhance retention and comprehension (Baron 2021, Benson 2020, Carr 2011, Kutscher 2017, Spence 2020).

On the other hand, electronic devices introduce constant distractions and an overwhelming amount of information. The adaptable human brain under these conditions often resorts to behaviors typically associated with screen reading, such as skimming and hyper-reading (Sosnoski 1999, Woolf 2018b, 2020). However, “word spotting” and “browsing through text” can undermine focused and deep reading, leading to a superficial understanding of complex or lengthy texts (Baron 2017, Wolf 2020). Consequently, “online multitasking and lack of cognitive focus is not an effective way to learn” (Cull 2011). In fact, the multitasking intrinsic to screen reading can significantly impair academic performance (Liu 2022). Wolf succinctly captures this, noting, “The screen is very exciting, but in fact, it’s overexciting” (Klein 2023).

Traditional paper reading proves more effective for studying and comprehending complex materials, which is crucial for academic success and personal intellectual development.

According to Wolf (2018b), the brain’s “use it or lose it” principle means that those accustomed to superficial reading risk losing their ability for deep reflection, a particularly concerning issue for younger generations. They may see essential skills like critical analysis, discerning reliable from unreliable sources, and empathy – all developed through immersive reading – decline under the “dictatorship” of our digital era. This could have dire consequences not only for their academic achievements but also for maintaining an informed citizenry (Wolf 2018b). Echoing this concern, Jennifer Delgado notes in her blog “Cognitive Impatience: The Road to Stupidity,” that hyper-connectivity and excessive information exposure foster “cognitive impatience,” which diminishes our control over thoughts and decisions, turning us into passive, easily influenced individuals, susceptible to emotional manipulation by entities like advertisers or politicians.

Thus, choosing between screens and printed pages is not only a matter of preference but a deliberate decision to be more intellectually engaged and to broaden our understanding of the world.

4. Conclusion

The rapid development of technology and the widespread use of electronic communication tools are fundamentally altering our relationship with time and attention (Levitin 2015). The constant demand for availability creates a sense that escaping the digital cycle is impossible, thereby making activities that require concentration and solitude, such as classical reading, seem challenging or unappealing.

The advantages of digital platforms are undeniable in terms of convenience and efficiency, but they fall short of providing the cognitive and emotional benefits inherent in traditional reading practices (Baron 2017). The mental effort required to navigate online reading, compounded by frequent notifications and the screen brightness, often disrupts meaningful involvement with the content.

While it’s unrealistic and likely unwise to completely disengage young people from electronic devices, given their significant educational benefits (Bartley 2022), it is vital to strike a balance between screen and conventional paper reading. Being competent in both digital and print media, and choosing the most suitable medium for each context, is vital for maintaining strong reading skills and optimizing comprehension in contemporary world (Baron 2017, Cohn 2021, Cull 2011, Delgado et al. 2018, Wolf 2020).

However, promoting traditional reading goes beyond mere nostalgia; it aims to create a more enriched, focused intellectual environment that facilitates self-development (Anon 2015). Institutions like libraries and schools must be at the forefront of this movement, ensuring they remain relevant and influential in a computerized world.

Moreover, effectively allocating our time and attention to counter the notion of “keep moving, never to stop” (Edmundson 2013) is essential, not merely advisable (Safranski 2008). Such measures are important for supporting mindful approaches to integrating technology into our lives, securing that our interaction with digital media enhance rather than hinder our mental abilities and personal growth.


Gordana Galic Kakkonen, Associate Professor, Department of Croatian Language and Literature, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Split, Croatia

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