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Is Your Online Activity Affecting Your Ability to Read Seriously?

Is Your Online Activity Affecting Your Ability to Read Seriously?

Does this describe your reading habits? You love reading, both in print and using a whole variety of digital products, but you’ve become so good at reading online, scanning for the important words, that you transfer that skill to reading serious novels. As a result you don’t get as much out of your novel-reading.

Washington Post describes one such reader:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

That’s probably the online behavior most of us exhibit. The problem is that this way of reading may be affecting our brains by making us read serious literature in the same way.

Is the Internet Changing the Way Our Brains Work?

According to some neuroscientists, it’s possible that we are developing “digital brains” with new circuits necessary for skimming through the deluge of information online, and these new circuits are competing with our traditional deep reading circuitry.

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.”

She herself was startled to discover one day last year that when she sat down to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” after a day working online, she just couldn’t get herself to calm down and read slowly, one word at a time.

We’ve probably all experienced something like that, so does this mean our brains really are changing as a result of the Internet?

Linear Vs. Nonlinear Reading

As Washington Post explains, before the Internet we used to read in a linear fashion, one page after the other, with maybe some images mixed in with the text. Our brains even developed the ability to remember where information was in a book, simply by the layout.

With the advent of the Internet, everything changed: there is so much information and so much activity going on that our brains must create shortcuts to deal with it all. We scan, we scroll up and down, we bookmark, we search for key words. All this is so-called “nonlinear” reading, and this is what could be affecting our ability to think and understand in non-electronic formats.

Certainly, as a former English teacher, I’ve seen how students increasingly resist reading novels, and especially the classics. Indeed, a random survey of most high school students today will reveal that reading a book is not the first choice of activity for the majority of them.

Kids Reading Better With Printed Books Than With Ebooks

And in case you’re thinking that e-books can solve that problem, a study released last week indicated that middle school students’ reading comprehension is higher when they read traditional printed books than when they read ebooks on iPads. The research was presented at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, indicating that ebooks can actually get in the way of reading.

In a second study looking at students’ use of e-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author software, researchers discovered that the young readers often skipped over the text altogether, engaging instead with the books’ interactive visual features.

However, these studies were based on only a small sample of students and don’t tally with my experience as a teacher using iPads: my students both love using them and also do well with them. So I’ll wait to see further proof of these findings.

There are undeniable downsides, however, to ebooks: for one thing, I like the feel of a traditional book, and the ease with which I can leaf back through the pages and find particular sentences that I especially liked.

On the other hand, I spent a week hiking on the Southwest Coast Path in the UK last summer, and loved carrying my lightweight Kindle with its numerous reading options. Camping out by the beach, reading the latest collection of Alice Munro stories, I was blissfully happy.

What do you think? Is the Internet affecting your ability to read serious fiction? Are you developing a Twitter brain?

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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91 comments

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1:52PM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

Yes, it changes the way you read. I love books that light up by themselves...

Actually I prefer paper or hard cover books...

3:16PM PDT on Jun 5, 2014

I think yes.... I hate reading books on my computer, I refuse to do so! I love real books!!

2:14PM PDT on May 1, 2014

People read at different depths and for different reasons. Additionally, the same person is very likely to be using those contrasting reading skills. It isn't possible to wind back time and halt the march of technology, so instead I suggest a more practical approach and that is to increase the focus on teaching deep, slow reading as a skill at school and further encourage it to be taught in the home. Additionally, teach skim reading, speed reading, skimming headlines and reading the first line of each paragraph for an overview and to target very specific information while also using bookmarking and non linear reading. All these skills have their place. It is true that it may take more effort to teach children to sit with a book and digest it slowly in an electronic media reading environment but it can be accomplished. Perhaps unmentioned and to the point is how much comprehension is demonstrated after using electronic media reading techniques.

11:38PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

It doesn't affect my reading..Maybe because I'm much more paper book reader than internet surfer?

7:33PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

I think the use of computers have had adverse affect on users and I am definitely one of them. At least I don't have to feel like it is just a problem for me! Thanks for sharing.

4:40AM PDT on Apr 22, 2014

I am finding this happening to me. I don't enjoy reading nearly as much as I used to.

7:04AM PDT on Apr 16, 2014

thank you for the great article

6:41AM PDT on Apr 16, 2014

This reminded me of an article I read yesterday about procrastination. It’s seems to me that everything revolves around the idea of having a “light life of style”, not getting involve with anything and moving fast from one attraction to the next. Sadly books don’t fix in that lifestyle.

9:59AM PDT on Apr 15, 2014

This is happening to me...have to get out of this trap and read books ...slowly...again! thanks for the article

2:51AM PDT on Apr 15, 2014

This theory doesn't apply to me. I'm reading as I've always read. Picking and choosing what you want to read is important. There might be tons of readable material on the internet, but I also found a lot of them to be repetitive.

There are a lot of people who always look for shortcuts in life. So I guess this might not come as a surprise to a lot of people. However, it's also a choice one makes. Do you want to skim over an article about a subject you like or maybe even passionate about? I certainly wouldn't. I don't even use abbreviations in my texting messages often. Call me old school or what you will.

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