Most of you would likely be reading this on some device. Indeed, with the explosion in reading material online through blogs and articles, our reading has moved significantly from paper to digital screens. Does this matter in terms of our ability to absorb and digest information? Apparently, yes. Professors at the Macquarie university in Sydney reviewed scientific research on the subject that shows there is indeed a ‘screen inferiority effect’ i.e, reading on screen is generally less effective than on paper. Whilst the authors concede that the reasons for this are still not clear, they present some possibilities:

“It might partially reflect the dry eyes and visual fatigue that sometimes result from reading on screens. But the effect could also be related to how readers control their thoughts and behaviours. According to this account, because most digital reading involves the rapid acquisition of information from social media posts, short online news articles and emails, readers fail to appreciate that the more superficial reading that is sufficient to understand the gist of these short, simple texts is insufficient to understand longer, more difficult texts.

By this account, the screen inferiority effect reflects the misapplication of one reading strategy (the skimming of short, simple texts) to another, inappropriate situation (the reading of longer, more complex texts). Readers who are skimming might, for instance, be ignoring the shorter function words (like ‘a’ and ‘the’) that mostly play grammatical roles, and instead focus their attention on the longer content words that tend to convey the most meaning. Although this skimming strategy might be sufficient to understand the gist of a short text, any information that is lost by ignoring function words would be expected to degrade understanding of longer, more complex texts, where grammatical roles are required to know ‘who did what to whom’.”

What can we do to get better at reading on screen?

“This could be done by actively slowing down your reading on a screen when the goal is to understand a difficult topic, or choosing formats with fewer visual distractions, such as advertising banners, that could result in split attention. To read optimally in the digital age, you must be mindful of your aims, and then select the reading approach – including the medium – that best supports them.”

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