Digital media changes reading habits, according to UT professor


Mengwen Cao

Andrew Dillon, dean and professor in the School of Information, has been conducting research that suggests the way people read online impacts their ability to comprehend texts on paper.

Natalie Sullivan

The amount of time you spend reading Facebook posts and skimming web pages could impact one’s ability to read and comprehend longer texts on paper, according to a University professor.

School of Information Dean Andrew Dillon said the way online content is formatted leads to breaks in attention span, which can then make it more difficult to return to extended texts, such as novels.

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that, when [you] sit down with a novel, your daily [habit] of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” Dillon said. “We’re in this new era of information behavior, and we’re beginning to see the consequences of that.”

Dillon, who studies reading and human behavior, said the change in reading habits occurs because of increasingly smaller electronic devices and the challenge web publishers face to attract audiences to online content. 

“As the technology moves, the content providers adjust and, since screen real estate and human attention are at a premium, shorter texts, increased use of animation and color, and a concern with getting the message across quickly all come to the fore,” Dillon said. “This is the new norm, and you probably won’t be seeing too many people reading Proust on their iPhone anytime soon.”

According to Dillon, this emphasis on reading in short bursts could have damaging effects on comprehension, especially for younger readers who have grown up in a digital age.

“Studies have shown that there’s a comprehension gap between reading digitally and reading on paper, and, funnily enough, people don’t see it themselves,” Dillon said. “Particularly for a generation raised on largely digital information … I think we have to be conscious of the skill set that’s involved with deep immersion with long extended reading and be conscious of that in order to retain that skill.”

Theatre and dance sophomore Kathleen Brown said she prefers reading on paper to reading online because the Internet can be too distracting.

“I definitely get easily distracted when I read online,” Brown said. “There’s always this temptation to just open another tab or click on another link. I think I retain a lot more of what I read when I read on paper because I can take notes, and I can’t click on another link and get distracted.”

English associate professor Matt Cohen said, although digital reading may not match the depth and sustained concentration of extended reading, it also has some benefits. 

“I do think reading on digital platforms affects reading but perhaps not in a simple negative-or-positive way,” Cohen said. “For instance, it’s way easier to look up things I don’t know — allusions, symbols or myths — than it used to be thanks to online resources.”   

Although digital content may be changing how we approach reading, Dillon cautions that the basic skills behind it remain the same.

“We [still] have to make a conscious decision to put the necessary effort into reading if we want to fully understand an argument,” Dillon said. “You cannot cheat the basic limitations of your attention and memory system, although the technology often creates the illusion otherwise.”