Agadir - The act of reading is a multi-sensory process that activates not only a reader’s mind, but also their body. The ever-increasing transfer towards screen reading has sparked doubts on the impact the screen has on readers’ cognitive processing and haptic interaction with text content.
Agadir – The act of reading is a multi-sensory process that activates not only a reader’s mind, but also their body. The ever-increasing transfer towards screen reading has sparked doubts on the impact the screen has on readers’ cognitive processing and haptic interaction with text content.
Classical reading—in which readers flick through printed pages and are physically involved with the reading material—is now turning into hypertextual reading, where readers use the mouse to click and scroll. This profound difference and striking change of readers’ haptic interaction with classical and digital texts have made some researchers consider the reading device a hurdle between the reader and the text content. The belief that the reading device (be it a computer, an e-reader, or something else) creates a gab that separates the direct connection between reader and text is strongly supported by Mangen, who stated that—contrary to digital reading—the physical book is “physically and functionally unitary object where content cannot be distinguished from material part.”
Many researchers believe that readers’ detachment from the text due to the intangibility of digital texts has changed readers’ immersion and engagement for the worse. Superficial and unfocused reading is currently the greatest trouble with screen reading. The fact that most reading devices are connected to the internet makes readers more vulnerable to a variety of stimulations. The internet make readers easily distracted and their attention is more likely to be scattered; put differently, unlike digital reading in which readers are tempted by countless distractions that can be attained with a single click, classical reading —which is linear by nature— is “a static and fixed perceptual phenomenon does not provide us with options for attentional switching and for autostimulating our attentional response.”
Humans are naturally inclined to lose interest as our concentration is drained. The innumerable options and stimuli provided by a screen urge readers to skip from one link to another in an attempt to revive their attention. Hence, with the presence of these temptations, it might take readers a concerted effort to stay focused and resist appealing links so as not to disrupt the reading process of the text. This distraction, or the phenomenological experience of “being neither here nor there” as Ben-Shauld called it, is the result of readers’ consciousness of their accessibility of countless new links, websites, and other stimuli. Ben-Shauld asserted in this respect:
The split attention of the viewer/user between what he/she cognitively constructs from what’s going on in front of him/her, and his/her constant awareness to what may potentially lie at stake in options made available by behaviorally changing the course of events… In all of these experiences the behavioral option is restlessly often activated, resulting in the user/viewer being neither here nor there.
Simply put, when comparing online reading and reading on paper, it is more common for digital readers to find themselves indulged in a circle of ceaseless links and pages. With regard to this, Mangen made a thought-provoking analogy between reading from a computer screen and reading from TV. The first reaction of a TV viewer when his/her interest starts to fade is that of deviating their attention to another channel and substituting the old stimulus with a new one. By the same token, screen readers are predisposed to easily lose interest, especially when they are aware that a new stimulus is at hand. Accordingly, using the remote control to switch from one channel to another becomes akin to using the mouse to “jump” from one link to another. Carr, likewise, made a similar comparison when he analogized reading on a screen to zipping along the surface of water with a jet ski. Carr used this analogy to show that unlike the rapid browsing and shallow reading which characterize digital reading, print reading is focused and in-depth by nature.
Notwithstanding, I believe that describing on-screen reading as a mere jet skiing or zapping from one stimulus to another may be a bit exaggerated and a biased analysis. It might be true that on-screen reading behavior is often non-linear; it might also be true that browsing, scanning, and skimming are some of the main characteristics that characterize reading on a screen. Yet, it is also true that readers do skim, scan, and browse when reading on paper. Ascribing some reading ills such as shallow, unfocused, or distracted reading exclusively to the screen might not only be over-simplified, but also misguided and illogical. Hillesund conducted a study on reading behavior of university academic staff and he concluded that skimming, scanning, and browsing that negatively affect continuous, reflective and immersive reading also characterize reading on paper. Similar to rapid browsing that many researchers ascribe only to online reading, Hillesund concluded that experts quickly flick between a scholarly article and a book back—seldom do they read it from beginning to end.
Furthermore, the belief that digital reading is less immersive and that readers’ haptic interaction is split because of the screen utterly contradicts the study conducted by Chiong, Ree, Takeuchi, and Erickson in 2012. This study—which compared parent-child co-reading on print, basic, and enhanced e-book platforms—found significantly higher levels of engagement (a combination of parent-child interaction, child-book interaction, parent-book interaction, and signs of enjoyment) for the e-books than the print books.
As I see it, readers assume the great responsibility of which type of reading to employ: they are the ones who decide their purpose of reading a text and how they are going to read it. That is to say that a reader can skim, scan or deeply read a digital text the same way he/she can skim, scan, or deeply read a printed one. A reader who easily gets distracted on-screen is more likely to get distracted in print as well. It might be true that digital reading triggers more potential temptations but, as a matter of fact, temptations that might obstruct reading exist in both hypertextual and conventional environments. Labeling reading on screen as “being neither here nor there” puts the whole blame on the screen-reading presentation; and this neglects the readers’ active role. Moreover, depicting readers as victims of the screen insinuates and portrays them as helpless, capricious, and impulsive.
As a matter of fact, this is an inconclusive debate in which the majority of researchers believe that digital readers lose their haptic interaction with the text, which consequently affects their immersion. Moreover, they also declare that the screen damages contemplative, immersive, and deep reading while it advocates skimming, scanning, and shallow reading. In strike contrary to these critics, supporters of the screen believe that digital reading can even have a better multisensory reading experience. Computers, eBooks, tablets and other reading devices are continuously improving so as to provide readers with better immersive and engaging reading experiences. One example of this is a reading device introduced by Amazon called “Immersion Reading.” This device enables readers to read and listen at the same time by engaging the eye and the ear simultaneously—obviously something paper cannot offer.
Despite the fierce criticism against the screen as a medium of reading, and despite the number of research that stresses the negative impact the screen has on readers’ immersion and interaction with the text content, the shift towards onscreen reading seems to be growing and inevitable. Thus, instead of promoting one reading format and trying to eliminate the other, and instead of deeming one format superior over the other, it would be more constructive to view the topic of print and screen reading from a complementary perspective: a perspective that provides young readers with effective reading strategies that help them obtain the maximum benefit from both paper- and screen-based texts. The objective should not make young readers fear or shun digital screens, but rather help them succeed in their on-screen reading journey in an era marked by incessant proliferation of digital devices.
Chiong, C., Ree, J., Takeuchi, L., & Erickson, I. (2012). Print Books vs. E-books: Comparing parent-child co-reading on print, basic, and enhanced e-book platforms. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
Hillesund, T. (2010). Digital reading spaces: How expert readers handle books, the Web and electronic paper. http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2762/2504
Mangen, A (2008). Hypertext fiction reading: haptics and immersion.
Journal of Research in Reading, Volume 31, Issue 4, 2008, pp 404–419
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