It might sound cliché to say that everyday Americans are spending more time online, however the truth of this statement continues to increasingly shape our culture. Just in the past few years, everyday activities like banking, socializing, shopping, and reading, have exploded in popularity in the digital world. The rule of thumb seems to be “If it is easier and more convenient online, than why not?” As a mental health professional it is my job to closely examine such trends and look deeply at the impacts of our rapidly changing world. After all, we now know that our behavior and environment significantly shape our brains and thus our thoughts, feelings, and relationships.
Let me start off by saying that I am a big Internet user. I have a smartphone, which I find at times to be quite useful. I also often find myself in a struggle to self-regulate my screen time. I respect the pull our devices have based on firsthand experience and that of my peers and clients. I have also noticed that many individuals, myself included, now get the majority of our news, and thus the majority of our reading, done online. As a long-time e-reader I have always been curious about why certain people reject reading on a screen and why others embrace it and what the effects of both might be on the brain both off and online? This question is at the heart of the inquiry of this post, in which I explore both the differences and impacts of reading online, on a tablet, and on good old-fashioned paper.
How, What, and Where You Read Matter
The real beginning to my inquiry into screen reading arose when I noticed my willingness and ability to pick up a book and sit down to read for any significant amount of time drastically waning. I also noticed that when I did pick up a book, even one on my basic e-reader, that I would jump around on the page and even jump between books. (Side Note: The irony of reading about this subject online is not lost on me).
Upon doing some digging I discovered that neuroscientists have revealed that we use different parts of our brains when reading from a book or reading online. Apparently, the more time you spend reading online the more you are strengthening your non-linear reading ability, which involves things like skimming around to get the gist of an article or having your eyes dart around the web page to find what interests you. Conversely, when you read from a book or even a basic (non-tablet) e-reader you are strengthening your deep reading ability. Deep reading involves a concentrated focus and linear reading direction. These skills apply to thoroughly understanding a dense text. Deep reading can also establish as stronger personal connection to the material with a broader array of feeling responses.
An important distinction also needs to be made between screen reading and reading online. Non-linear reading is triggered by the myriad options and high level of stimulation found online. If you have a basic type of e-reader, where the only options are other books, deep reading is still very much activated. An e-reader tablet with Internet functionality starts to offer more distraction and it is up to the reader to choose to settle into the text. In summary, not all screen reading is equal.
The Consequences of a Brain Out of Balance
Manoush Zomorodi, the managing editor and host of WNYC’s New Tech City, says that the problem is not that deep reading or non-linear reading is better than the other, but that “ . . . many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. And if you don’t use the deep reading part of your brain, you lose the deep reading part of your brain.” Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, echoes this sentiment when she states “I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the Internet . . . but I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes because we’re just given too much stimulation.”
With the number of children being brought up with tablets and smartphones as everyday household items, it is important to consider the implications if this information. As an adult who has a solid foundation of deep reading skills I am able to notice when they wane and do something about it. However, when a child who has done very little deep reading grows up, they have nothing to contrast their non-linear reading skills against and may never find a balance between the two. Additionally, a child who does not develop deep reading grows up into an adult with less critical thinking ability and potentially less creativity, as passive forms of media that activate less of the brain are chosen over reading.
Building A Bi-Literate Brain
The answer to the question, “What can be done about this?” is surprisingly simple . . . balance. For adults the answer lies in being aware of the consequences of falling out of balance and consciously taking time each day to do some quality deep reading offline. For children the responsibility falls on adults to set healthy appropriate boundaries, even if they are not currently popular ones. Wolf notes that it is important that teachers and parents make an effort to ensure that kids are taking some time away from scattered non-linear reading everyday. Adults need to ensure that children also practice the deeper, slow reading that we associate with books on paper or basic e-readers. Though this may make you the odd parent out, I firmly believe that in the near future firm boundaries around screen time and online reading will be fully validated through a shift in popular parenting techniques. Again, Wolf notes, “I think the evidence someday will be able to show us that what we’re after is a discerning ‘bi-literate’ brain . . . That’s going to take some wisdom on our part.”
Good luck in the balancing of a bi-literate brain. I welcome, comments questions and concerns.