Print vs. The Screen and Addictive Distractions

*Picture this*: You’re reading a recent story about a bank robbery in Texas. The sentence you’re reading says; “it was around 11am when the burglar…” Burglar. Burglar. You start to think about that amazing burger you had the other night. It was so juicy, so delicious. That was a great meal. You wish you could go back to that moment when you were eating that burger. Which reminds you, what are you having for dinner tonight? What’s in your fridge? Or do you want take-out? You open your phone to google and type in “highly rated restaurants near me”. Wow that’s a lot of results, maybe you should save money though. *back to google*. You type in, “easy, cheap meals you can make at home”. Or maybe you should look at food network’s instagram for ideas. *you open instagram* Oh wow, your cousin looks great in that picture she posted. 5 minutes later, you remember that you were in the middle of something… oh yeah! Reading a story about a burglar.

If you are like me, this tale sounds quite familiar. You’re focused, reading something that you’re interested in, until 5 minutes later you realize you spent the last 5 minutes thinking about or being distracted by something else. Nowadays, getting distracted while reading seems more common than ever, and it is taking us that much longer to read in general. But why has it become so increasingly easy to get distracted while reading? Media. Social or not, this new age where media has become an essential part of everyday life has made us addicted to constant updates and effortless information accessibility. Thanks to the torrent that is media, we expect nonstop newness. Our brains are addicted to the stream, so when we are trying to focus on something other than media, we feel the urge to check upon what we’ve been missing.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking are just ingrained in you.”
— Professor Andrew Dillon, University of Texas, who studies reading

However, is there a difference between which is more distracting? Paper reading, or online reading? To find out for myself, I choose to do 20 minutes of online reading, and then 20 minutes of reading from a paperback book. For online reading, I choose to read “Binge-Watching and Content Overload”, a medium.com post. For my paper reading, I read 20 minutes of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Both pieces were of high interest to me, which ruled out the factor of me getting distracted from being bored. On the other hand, I did find big differences in distraction rates between paper reading and online reading.

First of all, for paper reading I didn’t have a bright light straining my eyes, making me want to take my focus off the words. I also didn’t have different media popping up, tempting me to click on them instead of focusing on my reading. With my paper reading, I was able to highlight, circle and write on the paper; tools that help me stay focused and retain what I’m reading. Reading on the paper also allowed me to physically see how much more I have left, so I was able to break the reading into chunks, and then reward myself a social media update when I finished a certain section.

When reading online, it was a lot easier to get distracted. Although medium.com allows you to highlight and leave comments, doing it with my mouse isn’t as useful to me as doing it with my own hand. I found myself getting distracted by other features of medium. Because you can imbed videos and music, I got distracted by them. For example, there was a short video from Portlandia embedded. Once I watched that, I quickly went to Netflix to see what that show was about. After I read the description, I looked at the new ‘Netflix Originals’ list to see what was new with that. I then remembered that I was supposed to be reading a medium.com post and went back. Another feature of online reading that I don’t like is that the length is hidden. You can’t physically see how much there is left to read, and you have to constantly scroll up and down to go back to parts you want to reread. I was also easily distracted by how accessible it was for me to check up on my media while reading online. It was simply a click away.

Yes, the media distractions can happen whether you’re reading on paper or online. However, the difference is the back and forth searching and clicking you can do when you read on a computer. It’s a bigger screen, videos and pictures become more tempting than watching on a tiny phone screen. Distractions that pop up are larger. Sometimes the wording even seems shorter because there is less to scroll when you have images and text on a computer screen versus a phone screen. From the online standpoint, distractions become a lot more accessible and therefore more seductive.

“Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail — there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled… A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase — but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.” — Annie Murphy Paul

According to Naomi Baron (University of Texas), university students sampled in the United States, Germany, and Japan said that if cost were the same, about 90 percent prefer hard copy or print for schoolwork. For a long text, 92 percent would choose hard copy. Baron also asserts that digital reading makes it easier for students to become distracted and multitask. Of the American and Japanese subjects sampled by Baron, 92 percent reported they found it easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy (98 percent in Germany). Of the American students, 26 percent said they were likely to multitask while reading in print, compared with 85 percent reading on-screen.

In a study done by Johnson, he randomly assigned students from existing class groups, enrolled in leadership courses to read either digital (n = 119) or paper (n = 112) versions of a leadership article. Results showed that paper readers had a greater frequency of higher scores on multiple- choice scores and recall accuracy.

Test scores for students who read digitally vs. on paper
Recall Accuracy for students who read digitally vs. on paper

Due to the torrent that is the constant, fast moving stream of social media, our brains have become addicted to newness, to the point where it is expected at all hours and times of the day. We continually are distracted by updates, texts, pictures and videos that consume media. Our addiction to media has caused us to become increasingly distracted, especially when these distractions are easily accessible.

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