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Why don't we read so well on a screen?

Reading on a screen gives us more brain stress than reading the same text on paper.

Clicking and scrolling interrupt our attentional focus. Turning and touching the pages instead of clicking on the screen influence our ability for experience and attention.

The physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, not related to the reading itself, disturb our mental appreciation, says associate professor Anne Mangen at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway. She has investigated the pros and cons of new reading devices.

In her article "Digital fiction reading: Haptics and immersion", recently published in the Journal of Research in Reading, Mangen maintains that reading on a screen generates a new form of mental orientation. The reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen.

- Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that, Mangen believes.

- We experience to day a one-sided admiration for the potentials in the technology. ICT is now introduced in kindergarten without much empirical research on how it influences children’s learning and development. The whole field is characterized by an easy acceptance and a less subtle view of the technology, the researcher says.

- Would you warn against the use of digital teaching material?

- Critical perspectives on new technologies are often brushed aside as a result of moral panic and doomsday prophecies. I will not warn against it, but I think there is generally little reflection around digital teaching material. What we need, is a more nuanced view on the potentials and limitations of all technologies – even of the book. Very often important discussions about technology and learning have a tendency to reduce a complex field to a question about being for or against, Mangen explains.

The development of digital media leads to a need for more sophisticated concepts of reading and writing and a new understanding of these activities.

- Many people say that children read less and not so well as earlier. With which technology do they read less? What types of text do they read less well? What conceptions of reading are we talking about, Anne Mangen asks.

Even if children and young people do not read as many novels in book form any more, one may still argue that they actually read more than before. Most of what they do on a computer or on their cell phones, is exactly reading and writing.

Swedish researchers believe we understand more and better when reading on paper than when we read the same text on a screen. We avoid navigating and the small things we don't think about, but which subconsciously takes attention away from the reading. Also texts on a screen are often not adapted to the screen format.

The most important difference is when the text becomes digital. Then it loses its physical dimension, which is special to the book, and the reader loses his feeling of totality.

Mangen has mainly been looking at hypertext stories. These stories exploit the multimedia possibilities of a computer and use both hypertext, video, sound, pictures and text. They are constructed in such a way that clicking one's way around them comes close to a literary computer game.

As a researcher, Mangen is interested in the physical aspect of reading and applies theories from psychology and phenomenology linked to the relationships between motor functions and attention in order to highlight the difference between reading a novel and a hypertext story.

- The digital hypertext technology and its use of multimedia are not open to the experience of a fictional universe where the experience consists of creating your own mental images. The reader gets distracted by the opportunities for doing something else, Mangen says.

Karen Anne Okstad | alfa
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