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We have been reading since the invention of writing around the fourth millennium B.C. But computer screens, tablets and phones, products of the 20th century, are relatively new. So scientists have been studying reading comprehension. The question they examined is whether we absorb information more fully on paper or on the screen. 

Findings based on laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports support what we already know. That screens drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it harder to remember what we read when we are done. That students who read texts on computers and then answer multiple-choice questions perform worse than students who read the material on paper. That paper books and documents are easier to navigate and therefore may be better suited to absorption, which is why people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens. Seventy percent of people who work long hours in front of computers report symptoms including eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision, which collectively comprise a condition known as computer vision syndrome. Also, many people think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper. So they take a lot of shortcuts, skimming and scanning for keywords, rather than appreciating the honey-tongued phrases and mellifluous metaphors they'd find if they weren't so set on simply getting to the end. Busted!

Screen readers are also less likely to engage in metacognitive learning regulation by setting goals, rereading difficult sections and testing themselves on how much they've understood. You don't feel ownership of an e-book as you do a paperback or hardcover edition. All of these findings are common sense. Obvious to anyone who's ever tried to read an article as carefully on the screen as they can when printing it out and failed, though few try. Because e-reading is convenient! And often free! Which are the real benefits, indeed. The studies don't seem to justify the research funding required to publish them. Nothing is for nothing and you gotta pay the bills, I guess.

But what boggles me is that knowing that paper beats screens 9 times out of 10, that the only time the experience is comparable is when we look at images, I still persist in writing this blog thinking it will get appreciated while knowing full well that those who click on it do so only for the pictures. So here's one to brighten your day.


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