Reading revisited: paper vs. screen

Reading revisited: paper vs. screen

Call me a contrarian in the digital age, but I have a bias about reading on paper instead of reading on a screen. I prefer paper—hands down. I feel like I retain more information, and more importantly, I can make notes or highlight in the margin as I read along.

Here’s where things get even more complicated. Not only do I prefer paper, but I prefer my documents to be single sided. Paper is recyclable, so I don’t feel too guilty about printing a document on multiple pages.  Also, the amount of ink needed is the same regardless of whether you print single sided instead of double sided.

That brings us to cost. Each sheet of copy paper costs about 1 cent plus another 3 cents for toner ink.  If I am reading a document on three pages, is the 12-cent investment worth it to the company? Many companies justify spending based on the larger financial impact that spending has on the overall bottom line.   If I can think about a topic more clearly when reading about it on paper, then that 12-cent investment is negligible compared to any larger returns or decisions made as a result of my reading that article on paper instead of on a screen.

The Paper Preference: A Scientific Study

But that’s just my opinion. Apparently, I’m not entirely alone in my preference for old school paper over digital technology. Turning to a thoroughly scientific source, a recent article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American Magazine titled  “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper vs. Screens” made mention of a study that showed that screens limit the way people read text and, in turn, limit their comprehension of the text itself.

In this study, 72 10th-grade students with similar reading comprehension skills were asked “to study one narrative and one expository text, each about 1,500 words in length. Half the students read the texts on paper and half read them in pdf files on computers with 15-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors.”

To assess just how well they were able to understand and apply what they had read, the students were then asked to complete a brief quiz. The results showed that the students who read the articles on a screen did not perform as well as those who read the assignments on paper.

I found it interesting that students who were practically raised on technology didn’t grasp the subject matter as fully as they could have if they had read it on paper.

Another article that appeared in the Washington Post spoke about the observations of cognitive neuroscientists and how they are seeing the changing way that people now process information. The article states, “Humans… seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

As observed by scientific minds, we’re losing our ability to do more than just “skim” documents. With all the information that’s available to us, we’re not taking the time to take all that information in and process it in ways that can make us think better and make more informed decisions.

Maybe it’s because we’re all so pressed for time that we feel that it’s easier to just skim, extract one or two points of conversation, and adopt a TL;DR mentality. I don’t really know for sure. All I know is, I like to read the fine print and make the most informed decision I can. I like to draw conclusions based on what I read and connect it to other observations from things I’ve read, seen or experienced myself. Rather than simply scrolling down a page to find the specific points I’m looking for, I like to absorb an entire article and see if there’s a viewpoint I may not have considered

And I really like taking notes in the margin of a printed page.

Out of Touch vs. Staying Connected

After reading those articles, I didn’t feel quite as out of touch for preferring to print out reading materials.

Trust me. I’m not a technophobe. Like Kip Dynamite says, “I still love technology.” Although I do appreciate printing out a hard copy of reading materials or flipping through a magazine or newspaper to discover the latest news, technology helps us stay connected with one another. I use my tablet to gather information, view entertainment and enjoy participating in social media. In the end, technology is here to increase our productivity, but we need to make sure that efficiency does not trump effectiveness. When you really need to understand and think through a topic, print the relevant information and study it. You will be glad you did.