The Medium is The Screen. The Message is Distraction

My own research shows that people are continually distracted when working with digital information. They switch simple activities an average of every three minutes (e.g. reading email or IM) and switch projects about every 10 and a half minutes. It’s just not possible to engage in deep thought about a topic when we’re switching so rapidly.

That observation was made by Gloria Mark, a University of California professor who studies human-computer interaction. But it is also the collective verdict of five experts invited by the New York Times to participate in a debate entitled Does the Brain Like E-Books?. We briefly posted about it the other day but after examining the transcript we feel the contents of the “debate” deserve closer attention. The reason we put “debate” in quotation marks is that there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement about the conclusion that “watching books”, as we call it, compromises our ability to immerse ourselves in books. This is particularly true for children.

Sandra Aamodt, former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, writes that “people read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent... Distractions abound online — costing time and interfering with the concentration needed to think about what you read.

Concentrating on serious reading and avoiding distraction “depends on the user’s strength of character,” she says. Her comment reflects the theme of Distraction by Mark Curtis (no relation), the book pictured here, namely, that “a new sense of discipline is required to prevent us drowning in distraction.

Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, points out that “No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain.” But “my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

“The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it.

Finally, David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, writes that

The most important ongoing change to reading itself in today’s online environment is the cheapening of the word. In teaching college students to write, I tell them (as teachers always have) to make every word count, to linger on each phrase until it is right, to listen to the sound of each sentence.

But these ideas seem increasingly bizarre in a world where (in any decent-sized gathering of students) you can practically see the text messages buzz around the room and bounce off the walls, each as memorable as a housefly; where the narrowing time between writing for and publishing on the Web is helping to kill the art of editing by crushing it to death. The Internet makes words as cheap and as significant as Cheese Doodles

As e-books move out of their infancy and into a dominant role in the reading life of our society, it is imperative that we recognize the significant psychological differences between reading on screen and reading on paper.

Professor Gloria Mark, deeply concerned about the distractions engendered by screen media, expresses her own preference: “I’d much rather curl up in an easy chair with a paper book. It’s not only an escape into a world of literature but it’s an escape from my digital devices.”

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


4 Responses to The Medium is The Screen. The Message is Distraction

  1. Aaron Pressman says:

    Richard, the funny thing about the blog post at the NYT is that if you read the five scientists' comments closely you'll see that at least four of them are clearly NOT talking about dedicated ereaders with e-ink screens but about reading stuff on computer screens and networked on the web — computers have multiple applications and web pages have multiple articles and so on. (Liu: ?networked digital media,? Aamodt: ?on most people?s computer screens,? Wolf: ?distracting information, sidebars, and now, perhaps, videos,? Mark: ?reading online?)

    And none of the research they are referring to appears to have anything to do with ereaders, either. The headline and intro are completely misleading. This is a rehash of the argument about whether reading on the Internet is "real" reading.

  2. Richard Curtis says:

    Aaron – technically true. But the title of the NYTimes-sponsored debate is "Does the Brain Like E-Books?" Obviously the sponsors felt there might be a connection. And the tenor of the statements made by the five experts is that reading on computer screens for any purpose makes viewers susceptible to distraction.

    So far we have only anecdotal support for the hypothesis that e-book reading reduces the reader's ability to concentrate (see the comments of a 15-year-old ). One correspondent suggests that it might be productive to do brain scans on readers of print books vs. readers of e-books so that we can develop scientific data.


  3. Scott McLeod says:

    So what’s the proposed solution? Get rid of electronic screens in our lives? That’s not happening, of course…

    • @Scott McLeod

      Obviously no one can reverse technological progress, or wants to. But we do need to be aware that there’s a downside to progress and if negative side-effects show up (such as consistently lower scores in school testing) we may want to revert to printed books for some kinds of reading and education.

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