The Negative Effects of Online Reading

We can do a lot of things online, but remembering what we read isn’t one of them.

  • They found that when participants read offline, they performed better in concentration, comprehension, absorption, and recall. Online readers performed better in only one category: total words consumed.
    Photo by Flickr/Giuseppe Milo

Fifty-odd posts on Facebook and Twitter, mostly skimmed. A recap of Sunday’s football action. Four emails. Two full news articles, plus the rest of the headlines and subheads on the front page. A fake news article, too. Throughout, an online chat with one friend and a few text messages traded with another.

That’s the diet of text I consumed this morning as I put off figuring out how to open this essay. Looking back on it reminds me of those old daytime talk-show segments about parents who let their massively obese kids eat entire pizza pies and gallons of ice cream for lunch. I’m not proud of it. But I also know I’m far from alone. Your reading habits may not exactly mirror mine at my most dilettantish, insatiable, and distracted, but no doubt they’ve also gotten worse over these past few years of increased internet connectivity. Like that poor kid’s ice cream, it’s all harmless fun until you find yourself binging on empty online calories every day, as many of us now do.

We can no longer deny the pernicious cognitive effects of reading online. Last July yet another study on the subject was released, this one by researchers at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. Their title—“Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour”—promises a clear verdict, and indeed the data is persuasive. They found that when participants read offline, they performed better in concentration, comprehension, absorption, and recall. Online readers performed better in only one category: total words consumed.

Lead researcher Val Hooper took the findings as an opportunity to raise a flag of concern—but not the concern you might think. Instead of decrying the mind-numbing consequences of shifting our reading habits online, Hooper frets that an old-fashioned “linear” reading culture—comprising parents, teachers, scholars and authors who tend to read and write in a manner requiring comprehension and recall, largely because they’ve developed and maintained an ability to focus on text for more than a minute or two at a time—is holding back the next generation of digital-native youngsters.

“The structure of much of what we are reading is inappropriate for the way in which we’re receiving information now,” Hooper warned in a press release accompanying the study. “We need to learn how to read and write ‘digitally,’ as well as how to effectively interpret and retain information we read online. If you think about how we’re training our children to read, they’re being trained by those who were trained in the linear fashion. So it will take at least a generation for significant change to happen.”

Hooper’s logic is symptomatic of our era. We’re so entranced by the promise of the internet that we explain away any evidence of the medium’s negative effects as the mere growing pains of a glorious new digital consciousness. As with the utopian visions of previous centuries, however, the ship of our digital dreams isn’t necessarily equipped to navigate the rocky banks of human nature—in this case, a neural architecture that is in many ways fundamentally unsuited to an overstimulated, always-online environment.

2/5/2018 10:07:39 AM

Sorry, but industrial farming is NOT a boon to civilization. Recognition is growing that it is the single largest contributor (via loss of soil carbon sequestration) to global climate change and poor health outcomes. It is not even a long-term solution to global undernourishment - the bounty continues to go to meat production for industrialized and industrializing countries. I agree with most of what you have to say, but the verdict on ag was too important to let stand.

2/5/2018 8:12:28 AM

As an old fart (born 1958), I'd like to praise your careful distinction between electronic reading and what you call "online reading" (which I think is a misnomer). However, I'd like to make an even more careful distinction between this problematic kind of reading and electronic reading with online support. For example, it's often the case when reading a text that I see a word or phrase in it that I don't understand. The ability to select it and search the web for it (as opposed to following a pre-prepared hyperlink) is a very powerful one, *especially* when reading a complex and allusive literary work. Now it's possible that such an investigation winds up being more interesting than the original text. That's not necessarily a bad thing: some texts are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. (You might want to google that.) But ad blockers and the suppression of email popups (except for work emails during work hours, an unfortunate necessity in my case) go along way to eliminate *involuntary* diversion of attention. After all, (print) magazines, even Utne Reader, are full of distractions, but most of us manage to read magazine articles while following the jumps and ignoring the ads. (In some magazines, the ads may be the point.)

2/2/2018 1:00:50 PM

Extremely interesting article. After receiving my latest email from Utne, your headline immediately caught my eye. I too read your whole article with great concentration and interest. I learned a long way back reading anything of great length was not my learning style for retaining that info and keeping my interest/ concentration.. As you mentioned there are too many distractions, links to click on within an article you are reading , a flashing ad or another headline along side an article is often too tempting to pass up. Having been long out of school (college), and now soon to be retired I fully intend on returning to taking college level classes, and I know I much prefer to have a book right there in front of me to reference, study, etc. along with my notes, in my own sometimes unintelligible handwriting. It is my understanding that actually handwriting notes is superior to quickly keyboarding them into notepad/wordpad for retaining information. I love to read novels and have probably 1000s under my belt, and having that hard copy in my hand really is superior to reading anything on line. Having said that I have gone the Kindle route, downloading certain books there and reading them. I have enjoyed those choices, and have maintained my concentration, but I am extremely choosy when it comes to those I decide to download. They have to be rather light reading and a quick read, as it frustrates me not to be able to quickly go back to reference a character or place, etc I also live in a rural community and having the Internet and the ability to download books, articles etc. has been very helpful when needing those things. But I do believe all of us have different learning styles, and I am not so sure that reading.and attempting to retain information online is the best way to go. I have a very strong concern for the future of education going forward to online learning. I pray that our libraries will never be eliminated for a total isolation of internet learning and communicating.

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