Digital technology has been blamed for a multitude of nasty effects, from mental-health problems to a decline in cognitive faculties. Naomi Baron, who studies language at the American University in Washington DC, believes there are costs associated with the shift to reading on screens — not in ability, but in the way we approach reading. “To what extent does the medium shape our expectations of how we’re supposed to read?” she asks. Some studies have found that people reading printed words are better able to recall specific details, or reconstruct the plot of a story, than those reading on a screen. The physicality and organization of printed material account for part of the difference.
Even more important, Baron argues, is the way that digital environments encourage a shallower engagement with written material. People approach digital content with a lower level of commitment than they do printed text: they skim, multitask and flit from one item to the next. “It’s the amount of concentration we believe digital media warrant,” Baron says. She is coordinating an international project to disseminate findings to educators and administrators, and to develop strategies to optimize reading in any medium.
Some fear that the digital environment is shortening attention spans — certainly, diagnoses of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have become more common in recent decades. It has been shown that the mere presence of a smartphone lowers performance on cognitive tasks, presumably because mental resources are tied up by the effort required to ignore the phone. The quality of face-to-face interactions has similarly been shown to decline around digital devices.