The Negative Effects of Online Reading

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


| Spring 2015



Is online reading bad for you?

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.