Are We Losing Our Ability to Read in the Digital Age?

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One of my favorite hobbies is reading. I love when I can’t put a book down and have to force myself to stop reading, otherwise sleep or productivity the following day will be compromised. The problem? This only occurs with fiction. I need to be gripped by a story, characters, and conflict. I also need to read in a medium that offers no distractions (an actual book or non-tablet style e-reader). Over the last few years, I have increasingly found reading most non-fiction articles and books a challenge. There are very few non-fiction authors that can weave information into a compelling story. I find myself reading and re-reading paragraphs and wishing I could just get the key messages in bullet points. I also find that the mediums I read non-fiction material on (typically a tablet or computer) offer too many distractions. As someone that has relied on reading as a means to expand intellectually, my inability to focus on and retain non-fiction material had me concerned. Was my reading ability being impacted by my daily ingestion of sound bite style writing and electronic delivery?

Twenty plus years ago, before the surge of the Internet, PowerPoint, and mobile devices, we read mostly in linear ways with paper, paragraphs, and actual pages to turn. There may have been some imagery with the text, but we didn’t have hyperlinks, advertisements, and imbedded video to distract us. We also did not have a tool like a mouse to encourage non-linear reading and to allow us to scan and scroll the text. This scanning and scrolling approach to reading is sometimes referred to as “shallow” or “fragmented” reading. With descriptors like that, how can we possibly concentrate and make the connections needed to process the information? Patrick Kingsley of the Guardian described the situation perfectly, “We have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.”

In 2008, a study conducted by the University College London found, “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, content pages, and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” Additionally, a 2012 study of Israeli engineering students measured comprehension while reading the same text on-screen versus in print. The students, raised in a digital world, believed their retention would be higher after reading on screen. That was not the case! Their comprehension and learning were improved when they read on paper.

So, how can we combat this? One suggestion is slow reading. There is an actual “slow reading” movement focused on “the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension…” One blogger in the movement took the straight-forward approach of simply getting a physical book, setting up a distraction-free reading environment, approaching the material in scheduled small chunks, and even repeating the process in the end. A couple weeks into the structured approach, she started to feel rewired and had greater ease remaining focused and retaining what she had read. I would take this one step further and try to discuss what I had read with someone, whether or not they had read the material. That extra step would force my brain to recall key elements of the text plus organize and relate the information verbally.

I have also approached improving reading comprehension through a neuroplasticity/“brain training” application called Elevate that strives to improve how you speak, listen, write and read. The games are pretty similar to reading comprehension testing from your younger days where you are presented with text and asked questions to verify retention. While these games only last a few minutes (and are the opposite of a slow reading approach), I am hoping my targeted exercises/games are doing more for me than playing Candy Crush.

While working on this blog, I have become very aware of how I read and digest information. I now catch myself when I am skimming and when I begin to let things like a new email notification lead me away. The awareness alone has helped me pause and intentionally refocus on what I am reading. I have also broken down and purchased an actual non-fiction book…the first in a long time. I want to try the slow reading approach and see if I can begin to get back the enjoyment and benefits I experienced before.

Have your reading style and abilities changed over the years? Do you have any suggestions to improve focus and retention? I’d love to know!