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Concentrate! The challenges of reading onscreen

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.

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“Tablet Reading” by Unsplash. CC0 via Pixabay.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Johnston

    The problem is we have embraced half of the new invention, but not the rest – it is like putting wide tyres on a pony and trap.
    Writing was invented because we had no way of sending pictures to eachother. Monks, of course, used to do this beautifully, but you had to come to the book, not it to you. Printing made it much cheaper to do words than pictures – monochrome woodcuts were possible but not easy, nor visually arresting.
    Now we are trying to use the stunted “words only” method on a rich visual medium and we’re wondering why it doesn’t work too well.
    Worse still, we are not using the two-way capability of the medium, but still broadcasting unchangeable messages with comments, if any stuck in a sidebar and generally ignored.
    Our communications can now be visually stunning, dynamic, real-time and collaborative – but we have been trained into using monochrome scrapes on a piece of wood instead. It is us which needs to change, to unlock the true value of the tools we now have.

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  3. Zane

    It’a actually quite easy to deal with the clutter problem. Nowadays there are many services for this purposes, such as Instapaper, Pocket, Readability, Clearly by Evernote. The browser Safari also provide a convenient reading mode.

    But even whenI get rid of clutter, I still find it hard to concentrate on reading on electronic screen, compared to reading on paper and reflective light.

  4. Jaspreet Sidhu

    Some internet explorers do provide distraction free reading mode, which helps a bit. One cam also download Adblock, works on most web pages.
    These are few some-what effective ways, but more tools are much needed to develop “Coping mechanisms”.

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