Books, magazines, catalogues and brochures – are they all a thing of the past? Are we destined to ‘consume online content’ instead of reading an actual printed page? If industry voices over the last decade or so are to be believed, digital media is the future while print media is all but dead. And yet, it may not be.
In recent years, print media has seen a resurgence in popularity. It seems there are good reasons why humans actually prefer an offline experience. An influential study carried out by the American postal service USPS in June 2015 is routinely referenced in support of the print industry, particularly in the context of marketing.
It uses neuroscience to explain the difference in how we read online and how we read in print. Its conclusion, as one printing company succinctly puts it, is a recommendation to ‘put something real into the hands of your audience. Forget social media, MMS and email and get back to marketing basics with a flyer.’
So, what are the benefits of reading print media, according to science?
Better retention of information
According to an Italian study carried out in 2014, print readers absorb more information than readers of e-books such as a Kindle. An earlier study scored print readers higher in areas such as empathy, immersion and plot comprehension.
The tactile sensation of holding a book in your hand makes for a more engaging experience. The story unfolds quite literally by turning the pages, making it easy to see and feel how much progress the narrative has made. You can go back and reread earlier passages of the text without losing your place, as opposed to scrolling or clicking back on a laptop or mobile device.
Reading on a digital medium was also found to lead to greater levels of distraction. The constant availability of the internet played a part, but another reason was that readers tended to spend longer scanning for keywords than processing the content in front of them. For readers needing to multitask, the digital environment makes this easier, as two-thirds of respondents in a recent study of university students confirmed.
With a printed document, there are no distractions in the medium itself, making it easier to concentrate. No internet rabbit holes, no links to click, no notifications, pop-ups or adverts to take attention away from reading the text in front of you. If the goal is full comprehension of the content, printed matter wins hands down.
A sensual experience
A large study carried out among 420 students in the US, Slovakia, Germany, and Japan discovered that over 90% of participants preferred reading paper books over digital content. While digital media were seen to have advantages in terms of convenience, lower cost and space-saving reasons, the students’ strong preference for books was based on how books made them feel.
Books can be held, touched, leafed through; it’s a tactile experience. Slovakian students in particular seemed to enjoy the smell of books. Scientists have analysed the chemical composition of old books to explain why their aroma contains a pleasing combination of faint notes of vanilla and grass. There’s a fascinating infographic that explains it all here. The aroma of an old book is akin to the enjoyment one gets from smelling flowers or perfume – it encompasses the senses.
Less eye strain
It should not come as a surprise to hear that greater screen time is not good for the eyes. A survey of 429 university students found that nearly half of them complained of eye strain after reading digital documents. Experts know that looking at a computer screen frequently and for more than 3 hours per day can lead to a wealth of symptoms of screen fatigue including eye discomfort, headaches, itchy / dry / watery eyes, burning sensation and blurred vision.
While on-screen reading may not cause long-term eye damage, it is worth taking some precautions to minimise symptoms. These include positioning the computer and monitor optimally for eye health, taking measures to minimise glare and taking frequent screen breaks.
Better quality sleep
Finally, there have been numerous research studies confirming that exposure to blue light in the evening, such as that emitted by computers and mobile digital devices, suppresses melatonin and has a disruptive effect on circadian cycles. This makes it harder to fall asleep and leads to less restful sleep.
Of course, there are no such problems associated with reading printed books and documents. In fact, the engagement and brain activity resulting from reading before bedtime helps the brain to wind down in preparation for sleep.
Elena Deeley did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.
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