These days, Kindles and other digital book readers are seemingly everywhere you look, and Nielsen has reported that more than 222 million ebooks were sold in the U.S. in 2014 alone. However, recent research suggests that you may want to temper your enthusiasm for these technological 21st-century tomes and stick to tried-and-true paper and glue versions of your favorite works instead.
One reason for this is that it seems your brain responds differently to ebooks than to printed media. As explained in a 2003 study called “VDT Versus Paper-based Text,” people reading ebooks displayed “differences in cognitive processing associated with memory assimilation” when compared to those reading regular books.
In fact, in 2014 a study led by Anne Mangen from Norway’s Stavanger University claimed that Kindle readers were less likely to be able to recreate a story in chronological order after reading it than those who had read the same tale in traditional book form.
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Worse than that, the act of reading an ebook can actually affect your mood. In 2004 researchers reported that digital screens caused readers to experience elevated fatigue and stress levels relative to those measured in readers of paper texts.
On top of this, ebooks can even alter the way your brain works after you put them down, as Kindles and similar devices inhibit the production of melatonin, an essential hormone for sleep. This prevents you from fully recharging and can make you groggy the next morning.
Part of the problem with ebooks is that reading is not solely an intellectual activity; it’s also a physical experience. In 2008 Anne Mangen wrote in her paper “Hypertext Fiction Reading: Haptics and Immersion” that “the act of reading is intimately connected with and intricately dependent on the fact that we are both body and mind.”
For instance, consider that when you read a printed book, you engage your sense of vision and touch. Conversely, you don’t feel the texture of the paper or the weight of the book when reading a Kindle.
Furthermore, Erik Wästlund of Göteborg University found, while studying the differences between printed and digital media, that the physical interactions involved in reading an ebook might represent an intellectual obstacle. Specifically, scrolling through long swathes of text on screen can be mentally draining.
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You can also potentially suffer from health problems if you spend too much time staring at a digital screen or, possibly, a Kindle. Indeed, you may find yourself suffering from the neck pain, blurred vision and dry eyes typical of Computer Vision Syndrome.
Don’t expect new technology to fix these problems very quickly, either. Even as far back as 1992 researcher Andrew Dillon stated that “single variable explanations are insufficient to capture the range of issues involved in reading from screens.”
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Two researchers in 2008 went even further, claiming, “total equivalence is not possible to achieve.” This means that ebooks will never be able to portray text in exactly the same way as traditional books.
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Moreover, while you can probably read a passage on a Kindle or similar device quicker than you can a printed text, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Certainly, according to a 2001 study, reading faster actually means you understand less.
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In terms of comprehension, it’s also interesting to note that in 2010 researcher Terje Hillesund discovered that students opted for digital versions of texts when starting a project, but after “browsing and skimming” digital media, they would turn to printed books for a deeper understanding of the material.
It’s further been claimed that graduate students behave in the same way. Indeed, a 2011 paper reported that they “browsed a few paragraphs or pages online and then printed out copies for further reading.”
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Similarly, 2012 research led by Silas Marques de Oliveira found that a whopping 96 percent of college undergrads surveyed chose to use traditional textbooks instead of digital books.
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You may be thinking that age-related issues are at play here; perhaps familiarity has led older readers to prefer printed works. Alas, you would be wrong: the preference for traditional books appears to cross generational lines.
Certainly, in spite of the fact that most millennials – people born between 1981 and 1999 – have grown up in a largely digital world and demonstrate clear comfort with emerging technologies, a 2008 report claimed, “When it comes to reading a book even they prefer good, old-fashioned print.”
High school students display similar tendencies as well. What’s more, a 2012 survey of Norwegian tenth graders concluded that students who read printed works “scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.”
Perhaps most troubling of all, though, is that digital media may hamper the development of very young people. In Imagination and Play in the Electronic Age, psychologists Singer & Singer warned that early reliance on technology may impact on a young person’s ability to interact in social situations.
Considering the variety of psychological and biological hurdles that ebooks present, it’s arguably clear that printed books are a better option than their digital counterparts. Keep these lessons in mind the next time you are shopping for a new book, and maybe you’ll opt for the richer experience that traditional books provide.