Print vs Screen

Julian Baggini brings some perspective to the reader’s dilemma:

[D]ebates over whether print beats screen are hopelessly simplistic, not least because reading on a computer, with endless distractions a click away, is very different from reading on a dedicated e-reader. Much depends on what you’re reading and why. In a Taiwanese study led by Szu-Yuan Sun, the results suggested that reading linear texts in the manner of traditional paper books was “better for middle-aged readers’ literal text comprehension” but reading on computers with hyperlinks “is beneficial to their inferential text comprehension”. In other words, the joined-up environment of the web encourages people to make connections and work things out, while straightforward reading encourages them to take in what’s on the page in front of them. Hence the prevalence of hyperlinks and multiple windows on computers could be seen as creating either unwelcome distraction or more opportunities for active learning.

Where research has suggested that comprehension is diminished by screen reading, it is hard to know if this is an artefact of the particular piece of technology and people’s familiarity with it. “Having a device that requires a lot of attention to simply operate could essentially steal working memory resources,” says [researcher Sara] Margolin. That did not appear to be the case in her own research, which she suggests was probably because “the device we used was fairly easy to manipulate and my participants were familiar with technology”.

This is a nice example of how hard it is to know whether the preferences we have for one type of reading device over another are rooted in the essentials of cognition or are simply cultural. As another researcher, Simone Benedetto, points out: “The fact that the large majority of the population is still trained to the use of paper since early childhood has a major influence on the preference for paper.”