Our lives are full of distractions: overheard conversations, the neighbor’s lawnmower, a baby crying in the row behind us, pop-up ads on our computers. Much of the time we can mentally dismiss their presence. But what about when we are reading?
I have been studying how people read with printed text versus on digital devices. Both media have virtues and drawbacks. But one standout issue concerns our ability to concentrate on the words in front of us. Do we focus as well while reading on a screen as when those same words are on a printed page?
The data suggest we don’t. My surveys of university students in five countries—the United States, Japan, Germany, Slovakia, and India—asked about the medium on which these young adults concentrated the best: print, a computer, an eReader, a tablet, or a mobile phone. Of the more than 400 respondents, 92% said print. In reporting what they like most about reading hard copy, respondents said things such as “You can concentrate better” and “feels like the content sticks in your head more easily.” When it came to complaints about reading digitally, replies included “danger of distraction” and “no concentration.” Other researchers have reported similar results.
Some of the reasons people get distracted when they read online are obvious. With computers, it’s easy to multitask, toggling between a Wikipedia article on the Zika virus and a live cam of Carnival in Rio. We hear a ping on our mobile phones and rush to find out who’s texting us, abandoning that article we were reading from the digital New York Times. On our tablets, we keep a game of Angry Birds going at the same time that we are working through Go Set a Watchman.
Yet there’s another challenge to our concentration when we read on a digital screen with internet connection, and that is extraneous images and messages. Those ads that clutter our every web search. Those dancing images that snatch away our attention. Those banners plastered over the text we’re trying to read until we figure out how to extinguish them.
Such distractions aren’t limited to the likes of commercial weather sites or discount travel pages. They show up on mainstream publications like Fortune. Do you want to read breaking news about the death of Antonin Scalia? While you’re at it, how about a Celebrity cruise or an Amex sale on select hotels? Return to the site 30 seconds later, and you’ll find the same article, but perhaps a whole new set of offers, beckoning.
More troubling is that distractions show up when we are trying to do serious reading online. Recently I came upon an eloquent essay called “The Future of the Humanities” by Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. You can find the article from the magazine Humanities on the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, that’s not where I originally encountered it. Instead, I stumbled upon the piece reposted on the website of the Pacific Standard, where I was barraged with sidebar ads for Amazon’s Audible and TripAdvisor’s recommendations for hotels in Anchorage, along with in-text temptations from Saks Fifth Avenue. Even though I was deeply interested in what Dirda had to say, the siren call of Alaska kept pulling my eyes away, along with my mind.
The problem most squarely hit home when I came across a piece on BuzzFeed that described my own research. A central finding of those studies—though not specifically referenced in the article—was problems of concentrating while reading onscreen. The BuzzFeed story was visually delightful but a model of distraction: an animated GIF of an old-fashioned young woman with a book, a colorful still tableau of a hand removing a volume from a library shelf, and then another animated GIF, this time of a cartoon maiden (courtesy of Disney) gliding along a classic library ladder. All fun to watch, but the result was to reduce the text into a side dish for the main entertainment course.
Reading onscreen is not going away, nor are those ads and waltzing GIFs. If the content of what we are trying to read matters to us, we need to develop coping strategies. The task is not a simple one. Given the commercial model for funding the majority of websites, it’s hard to imagine a wholesale return to the once pristine, ad-free pages of Google. And recognizing our human desire to be amused, after the public tires of GIFs, something equally distracting will surely take their place.
I don’t have a solution in my hip pocket. Rather, for now, I challenge those who care about the written word—teachers, parents, students, researchers, and readers of all ilk—to take the problem seriously. Acknowledging distractions when reading onscreen is a necessary first step.
Image Credit: “Man Reading Touchscreen Blog Digital Tablet” by kaboompics. Public Domain via Pixabay.