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Scientists say screens hurt our ability to comprehend the information we read

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Do you ever find yourself reading through a scientific article and feeling like your brain is imploding as you try to wrap your head around some of its heavy-duty concepts? It may be the fact that you spend too much time staring at screens!

According to a new piece of research coming out of Pennsylvania State University, adult readers who spend a lot of time using electronic devices turn out to be less adept at understanding scientific texts. Compared to folks who read on paper (which, we believe, is a kind of high-res display made out of wood pulp), people who look at screens for hours each day — whether it’s reading articles, texting, or playing games — find that they pick up only short fragments of information, as opposed to incorporating the information in a more thorough manner.

“Scientific reading is different from casual reading, and it requires the reader to put the science concepts together in a way different from putting stories and plots together,” Ping Li, professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State, told Digital Trends.

The researchers based their conclusions on studies involving hundreds of participants, recruited via Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants were asked to read eight different scientific articles, covering topics including electrical circuits, permutation, GPS, Mars, and supertankers. After reading each article, the participants were then quizzed on 10 multiple choice questions about the article, as well as being asked to sort key terms from the articles into groups. These questions were designed to test both facts and relations between the scientific concepts. The participants additionally provided background information about themselves, such as how often they were engaged in using electronic devices per day for reading and non-reading activities, such as gaming. Their comprehension scores on the questions were then predicted by factors such as the difficulty of the text and their reading habits, using correlation and multiple regression analyses.

But Li isn’t as depressed about schools’ ever-growing focus on using tools like iPads as you might expect. “I’m a big advocate of digital learning using cyber-enabled technologies, so this particular work does not imply that we should not read science on e-devices,” he said. “We could combat some of the negative effects of e-devices by making smart use of them. One example, from our own research, is that 3D-visualization tools provide an excellent platform for understanding scientific concepts.”

Next up, he says he would like the team to drill down on how reading on different electronic devices affects readers. “My hypothesis is that Kindle will yield more similar results as a print book, as compared with reading on an iPhone or iPad,” he told us.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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