6 Ways Reading a Book Beats Reading Digitally, Hands Down

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

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Print versus digital is largely a matter of personal preference, but after over a decade of scientific research and anecdotal findings, the evidence is pointing toward physical books as being more learning-friendly than digital reading platforms. Guido Cavallini/Getty Images

Reading is one of life's great pleasures. Getting lost in a good book can be a great way to spend a quiet afternoon, keep your mind occupied on a flight, or unwind at the end of a long day. In late 2007, Amazon introduced its popular e-reader, the Kindle. (The Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader followed in 2009). At the time, they were simply ways for the companies to simply sell more books. They were hyped as a convenient and inexpensive way to load multiple books onto a single device. Later, they were marketed as a way to help children read. But research is showing that something got lost along the way.

We talked with Naomi S. Baron, professor of linguistics emerita at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of the book "How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio," published by Oxford University Press. She gave us the scoop (and the research) on the many benefits of reading print. Here are six of them.

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1. You'll Learn More Reading a Physical Book

"When students approach academic reading," Baron says, "chances are a little birdie in your head is telling you you're supposed to focus on what you're reading, you're supposed to learn from it. In actual fact, what happens is that we don't end up focusing as much when we read digitally."

That's according to research Baron gathered from 400-plus university students between 2013 and 2015, and an even larger study in 2018 of more than 10,000 university students by UCLA researcher Dr. Diane Mizrachi and her colleagues.

One reason is what Baron calls a mindset issue. "There are all kinds of studies that show we're likely to have our mind wander more when we're reading digitally," she says.

Baron says we not only let our minds wander, but we assume we can read important information with the same casual digital reading mindset we apply to checking social media, reading sports scores, headlines or Yelp reviews.

Studies done with fifth and sixth-grade students and with adults in Israel and in the U.S. showed a mismatch in how students thought they'd do on SAT-style essay questions (where they read a passage and answer questions) and how they actually did.

"They think they're going to do better digitally but they actually do better in print, again, statistically," says Baron. "It's not 100 percent. They think they'll do better digitally but they do better in print. And I think it's good evidence for the mindset that we bring to digital reading."

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2. Printed Books Contain Fewer Distractions

When people settle in to read the latest must-read novel in print, they don't get a notification that someone has just taken a picture of their meal or that the Atlanta Braves just beat the Washington Nationals.

"Unless you've taken the time to turn off all the notifications, a digital reader is designed to interrupt," Baron says.

Once your reading session is interrupted by a notification and you've started multitasking, it's difficult to settle down to read again. In fact, one study found that 67 percent of people using e-readers or other devices can't read for more than 10 minutes before they start multitasking. Baron suggests turning off the internet or putting your device in airplane mode.

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3. Physical Books Cause Less Eyestrain Than Digital Books

Despite the fact that people experience eyestrain from reading in both media, it's much worse reading on screens. "If you look at what students say – 'My eyes hurt,' 'I have headaches' – overwhelmingly they noticed greater eyestrain reading digitally," says Baron.

There are several reasons for this eyestrain says Baron and other experts, including Dr. Ken Nischal, a specialist in pediatric ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Nischal's comments were made during a webinar hosted by Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. Nischal states that when a child (or anyone for that matter) stares at a screen, they blink less, reducing the tear film on the eyes. When eyes dry out, it hurts the muscles around the eyes. This causes blurred vision and pain. Also, the contrast between the print and the digital page can also be too harsh or bright.

Pro-tip: Practice the 20-20-20 rule when reading digitally – pause every 20 minutes for 20 seconds looking at a distance 20 feet (6 meters) away.

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4. Exposure to Printed Books May Boost Academic Achievement in Kids

A June 2014 study published in Oxford Academics determined that "the number of books in the family home exerts a strong influence on academic performance" of students. The authors of the study looked at data examining academic performance of 200,000-plus students in 42 nations taking the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). (The PISA is administered to 15-year-olds in OCED nations and assesses math, reading and science.)

Baron agrees, with caveats. "Just because you have 2,000 books, even for children, doesn't mean they're going to read them," she says. While she acknowledges the many correlations between the number of books a family owns and a child's reading scores, she also asks, "How much has to do with the books and how much as to do with the education of the parents and what else they're doing in their interactions with their kids, the standards they're setting, supervising homework, and so on."

Baron says she also looks at something called the "fiction effect," a correlation between book length, particularly fiction, and reading comprehension on standardized tests.

"We know that the amount you read of certain things makes a difference," she says. "The same correlation isn't found in magazines, newspapers or comic books. It's book length and it's fiction."

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5. Real Books Can Lead to Better Sleep

There are plenty of studies that show that reading on digital devices like phones and e-readers will adversely impact sleep. In a 2015 study, researchers at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, found that study participants reading digital books took longer to fall asleep and were less sleepy, secreted less melatonin (the hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle), experienced altered circadian rhythm, and were less alert the next morning than when reading a print book.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests turning e-reading devices off one hour prior to bedtime to give eyes, and the mind, time to relax.

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6. Science Says ... Books Make Us Feel Good

For all the flash and sizzle of digital readers, people still love holding real books.

"Students like the smell of books," says Baron, citing her research. "Who knew? Students talked about the touch of books, holding them in their hands, being able to locate something in the book. There are studies that have been done that though you may remember some of the facts and characters in a story that you read in print and digitally just as well, if you're asked 'where in the story did this take place and when in the line of events,' you remember better when you've read it in print. That probably has to do with the tactile sense of being able to physically locate it in the book. And we have that evidence from preschoolers up to college students."

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