Makes us think technology less effectively

Does reading on screens influence our thinking?

We influence the environment with our technology. But this is not a one-way street. The technology in our environment affects us. It literally changes the way we think. And that doesn't just mean thoughts and attitudes, but our basic thought processes. According to a recent study, it makes a difference whether we record information on paper or on a screen. Depending on this, various information processing processes are promoted.

By the early 1990s, most studies concluded that people read more slowly, less accurately, and less comprehensively on screens than they do on paper. At first it was believed that the lack of user experience with screens was responsible for this. Later the phenomenon could be traced back to the quality of the reproduction on the screens. (1)

The preference for paper seems to be persistent

Since then, the quality of computer monitors and displays has improved significantly. More recent studies are therefore more likely to come to inconsistent results or find no differences between the media at all. Nevertheless, a certain preference for paper persists. A study from 2013 compared eye movement, brain activity, reading speed and reading comprehension when reading on paper, on an e-reader (e-ink) and a tablet computer. Interestingly, all participants indicated beforehand that they would rather read on paper. The study itself did not provide any evidence that digital media, for example, would be more strenuous. On the contrary, the older participants read faster and with less effort on the tablet computer. Because the background lighting offers a better contrast, especially for older eyes. Then why the preference for paper? The authors suggest “a general cultural stance” against reading on screens. (2)

Paper and screen have different effects on information processing

It is interesting that there seem to be differences between reading on paper and on the screen on a completely different level. And this time it is precisely the fluency on modern screens that is critically assessed. (3) It is argued that it is now too easy to read on the screen. Because sometimes we remember information better when it was harder to process. It was shown that moderate “disfluency” actually improves retention performance because the information is processed more precisely and people deal more deeply with the content. (4) And this effect is not only evident in reading comprehension. For example, it is less effective for learning if students take notes in lectures on the laptop instead of writing them down. The ideal way to get into the brain still seems to be through the right (or left) hand. (5)

And yet another effect has recently been discovered: those who read on tablets and laptops tend to concentrate more on concrete details and less on processing information in the abstract. In a study, 66 percent of print readers answered questions that required an abstract understanding correctly, while only 48 percent of digital readers answered the questions correctly. Digital readers answered 73 percent of questions about specific content correctly, while print readers answered 58 percent correctly. (6)

If this result is confirmed in further studies, then digital media will obviously influence HOW we process information. That could have long-term consequences. Because abstract thinking lets us not only see “the big picture”, but also long-term consequences. Abstract thinking is also associated with empathy and creativity. However, it is not superior to concrete thinking per se. Both ways of processing information are necessary for optimal cognitive performance.

Innovations have to be introduced correctly

In some (Asian) countries, computers or tablets are already firmly integrated into school lessons. According to an OECD study from 2015 - against the background of the findings described here - the results are hardly surprising: learning performance did not improve per se with digital media. It was much more a question of how the digital media were used in the classroom. (7) As is so often the case, there is little point in simply giving people a new tool; they have to be enabled to use it.

Literature sources:

  1. Noyes, J.M., & Garland, K.J. (2008). Computer vs. paper-based tasks: Are they equivalent ?. Ergonomics, 51 (9), 1352-1375.
  2. Kretzschmar, F, Pleimling, D, Hosemann, J, Füssel, S, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I and Schlesewsky, M (2013). Subjective Impressions Do Not Mirror Online Reading Effort: Concurrent EEG-eyetracking Evidence From the Reading of Books and Digital Media. PLOS ONE 8 (2): e56178.DOI:
  3. Benartzi, S., & Lehrer, J. (2015). The smarter screen: Surprising ways to influence and improve online behavior. Portfolio.
  4. Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, and Erikka B. Vaughan. Fortune favors the Bold and (the Italicized). Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes. Cognition 118.1 (2011): 111-115.
  5. Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, doi: 10.1177 / 0956797614524581.
  6. Kaufman, Geoff; Flanagan, Mary (2016). High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms. # chi4good, CHI 2016, San Jose, CA, USA
  7. Sadegh, Marvin (2015). Pisa study - computers don't automatically make teaching better. The time