After his bath each night, Julie Atkinson’s eight-year-old son grabs the iPad and settles into bed for some reading time through kids’ book app Epic! Though Atkinson and her husband were accustomed to reading to him, now their son explores different subjects on his own inside the app’s 25,000 titles, reading biographies, history and fiction all pre-selected for his reading level. Atkinson is impressed with Epic’s quality titles, and likes the recommendation feature that makes the monthly subscription service feel like Netflix.
But Atkinson, who guesses that her family of four in Orinda, California, spends half their reading time with physical books, said that she has noticed a difference between how her son reads paper books and how he reads digitally. He has a tendency to skim more in Epic! “He might be more inclined to flip in Epic!, just flip through and see if he likes a book, skipping around. When it’s a physical book, he’s going to sit and read until he’s tired of reading. But in Epic!, he knows there are so many [books], he will read a little faster.”
According to San Jose State University researcher Ziming Lu, this is typical “screen-based reading behavior,” with more time spent browsing, scanning and skimming than in-depth reading. As reading experiences move online, experts have been exploring how reading from a screen may be changing our brains. Reading expert Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid, has voiced concerns that digital reading will negatively affect the brain’s ability to read deeply for sophisticated understanding, something that Nicholas Carr also explored in his book, The Shallows. Teachers are trying to steer students toward digital reading strategies that practice deep reading, and nine out of ten parents say that having their children read paper books is important to them.
But since digital reading is still in its infancy, for many adults it’s hard to know exactly what the issues are—what’s happening to a young brain when reading online? Should kids be reading more paper books, and why? Do other digital activities, like video games and social media apps, affect kids’ ability to reach deep understanding when reading longer content, like books? And how do today’s kids learn to toggle between paper and the screen?
The digital revolution and all of our personal devices have produced a sort of reading paradox: because of the time spent with digital tech, kids are reading more now, in literal words, than ever. Yet the relationship between reading and digital tech is complicated.
Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham said that digital devices aren’t changing the way kids read in terms of actual cognitive processes—putting together letters to make words, and words to make sentences. In fact, Willingham is quick to point out that in terms of “raw words,” kids are reading more now than they were a decade ago (thanks mostly to text messaging). But he does believe, as he writes in his book, The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, that kids’ reading habits are changing. And it’s reasonable to guess that digital technology, in all its three-second-video and Snapchat glory, is changing those habits.
In the chapter “Reading After the Digital Revolution,” Willingham, who has four children of his own, takes a measured approach toward screen reading.
“Digital reading is good in some ways, and bad in others,” he said: in other words, it’s complicated. Much of the online interaction that kids take part in involves reading, including texting, social media and even gaming. And all that online reading increases ‘word knowledge,’ or repeated exposure to words, even if there isn’t a big range of vocabulary words to draw from in text messages back and forth to friends. But will all of this reading of texts and Instagram posts make kids better readers?
“Probably not,” he said. “Based on theory, it’s not going to influence reading comprehension at all. After all, they’re not reading a New York Times article on Instagram. They’re mostly taking selfies and posting comments.”
For many parents and teachers worried that spending so much time with video games and Snapchats will shred kids’ attention spans—the average 8-12-year-old spends about six hours a day in front of a screen, and teenagers spend more than nine — Willingham thinks they may be concerned about the wrong thing. He isn’t convinced that spending so many hours playing Super Smash Bros will shorten kids’ attention spans, making them unable to sustain the attention to read a book. He’s more concerned that Super Smash Bros has trained kids’ brains to crave experiences that are more like fast-paced video games.
“The change we are seeing is not that kids can’t pay attention to things, it’s that they’re not as interested in paying attention to things,” he said. “They have less patience for being bored. What I think that all the digital activities have in common is that, with very little effort from me, something interesting happens. And if I’m bored, another interesting experience is very easy to obtain.” Instead, reading's payoff often comes after some effort and maybe even a little boredom in the beginning. But the slower-paced pleasure comes with more satisfaction in the end.
Watermelon for dessert instead of chocolate
Willingham said it’s a mistake for adults to deny the fun of a kitty cat video or Buzzfeed listicle—but instead to help kids distinguish between the easy pleasures of some digital media, and the more complex payoff that comes when reaching the end of the Harry Potter series. He recommends telling kids that you want them to experience both, part of a larger strategy to make reading a family value.
“It’s watermelon or chocolate for dessert. I love watermelon and so do my kids, but chocolate is more tempting,” he said. “I want my kids to enjoy chocolate, but I want them to eat watermelon because it’s a little more enriching and it's a different kind of enjoyment."
“So I think that reading is enriching in ways that lots of digital experiences aren’t enriching. Parents and teachers should confront this head on, and say [to their kids and students], ‘There are fast pleasures with a quick payoff, and there are things that build slowly and take more sustained effort on your part. And I want you to experience both.’”
Taking time to experience the slower pace and pleasures of reading is especially important for younger children, and Willingham is in favor of limiting screen time in order to give kids space to discover the pleasures of reading. Kids who never experienced the satisfaction of reaching the end of a book won’t know to make room for it when they are older.
And for older kids, coordinate with their friends’ parents and teachers to reduce the amount of time spent online. Every little bit helps to build their long-pleasure reading muscles.
How reading online changes attention
According to Julie Coiro, a reading researcher at the University of Rhode Island, moving from digital to paper and back again is only a piece of the attention puzzle: the larger and more pressing issue is how reading online is taxing kids’ attention. Online reading, Coiro noticed, complicates the comprehension process “a million-fold.”
As more and more of kids’ reading takes place online, especially for schoolwork, Coiro has been studying how kids’ brains have had to adjust. Her research, conducted on middle- and high school students as well as college students, shows that reading online requires more attention than reading a paper book. Every single action a student takes online offers multiple choices, requiring an astounding amount of self-regulation to both find and understand needed information.
Each time a student reads online content, Coiro said, they are faced with almost limitless input and decisions, including images, video and multiple hyperlinks that lead to even more information. As kids navigate a website, they must constantly ask themselves: is this the information I’m looking for? What if I click on one of the many links, will that get me closer or farther away from what I need? This process doesn’t happen automatically, she said, but the brain must work to make each choice a wise one.
“It used to be that there was a pre-reading, the reading itself, and the evaluation at the end of your chapter or at the end of a book,” Coiro said. “Now that process happens repeatedly in about 4 seconds: I choose a link. I decide whether I want to be here/I don’t want to be here, and then, where should I go next?”
In one of Coiro’s studies of middle schoolers, she found that good readers on paper weren’t necessarily good readers online. The ability to generate search terms, evaluate the information and integrate ideas from multiple sources and media makes online reading comprehension, she argues, a critical set of skills that builds on those required to read a physical book.
“We make the assumption that we’re going to keep them safe and protected if we have kids read mostly in the print world,” Coiro said. “And if they’re good readers in that world, they’re just going to naturally be a good reader in a complex online world. That’s so not the case.”
To navigate a new world straddled between digital and physical reading, adults are finding ways to try and balance both. Though there is plenty of distracting media out there vying for kids’ attention, digital reading companies like Epic! are trying to keep the reading experience as close to a real book as possible. Suren Markosian, Epic!’s co-founder and CEO, created the app in part for his own young children. He said they made a conscious choice to keep ads, video content and hyperlinks outside of the book-reading experience. “Once inside a book, you get a full-screen view,” he said. “You are basically committing to reading the book and nothing else.”
Some teachers have taken a more aggressive approach toward making space for reading, taking Willingham’s advice to talk to students head-on about putting down digital devices. Jarred Amato, a high school ELA teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, created a 24-hour digital cleanse for his freshman to crack the surface of what he calls their “smartphone addiction.”
“Students need to develop a reading routine, so I give my students daily time to read independently in my classroom,” he said. “Once they find a book that hooks them, they're far more likely to unplug from technology and continue reading at home.”