My fingers were flying over the computer keyboard.
“Mom,” said my ten-year-old son.
Eyes glued to the screen, I gave him a reluctant “Umm” trying to capture the crux of my thought.
“Mom!” This time his voice was insistent, demanding.
I sighed as my line of thought disappeared like tendrils of mist vanishing under the warmth of the rising sun. I turned in my seat to face my child and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“I need to research the Ancient Greeks,” he said petulantly.
“Look it up in the encyclopaedia,” I said.
“What’s an encyclopaedia?” he asked, squinting his eyes.
This was one of those moments that underlined how much things had changed since I was a child. It was a moment to talk about the joy of running a finger down an alphabetical index and turning the pages to find information and coloured pictures on glossy pages that smelt of a foreign press. Knowing my son, I knew I’d get the look - the same one I got when I told him that I was alive when phones had chords. There are parents who have faced that mocking look fearlessly. I am not one of them.
I typed the password on my computer screensaver.
“All yours,” I said, giving up my chair to him.
That evening I watched him type keywords with his pointer fingers, his eyes glued to the screen. I was torn. On one hand, I was constantly fighting a battle to keep him off electronics and on the other, I had just sanctioned more internet usage. Was I increasing his dependency on electronics? But it was for school research, so did that make it okay? Would reading digitally be one more contributing factor to a shrinking attention span? Would reading digitally affect his brain physically?
I attacked the issue the only way I know how: I researched the topic.
This is what I found. Research after research, old and new, establishes an oft repeated fact: that reading is good for you. We know that it builds empathy, the ability to think critically, and improves cognitive ability. So the question I asked was this – is it okay to encourage a child to read, whatever the medium? Does it matter if we read digitally or on paper? Does digital reading impact us and our children? If yes, how does it change us?
I dove deeper into the research and conducted an experiment on myself: I mindfully observed myself reading a digital article that discussed the changes in the diversity quotient of international students and then I read the same article in the newspaper version. I found that when reading the digital article, I read the headline, the blurb, the first few paragraphs and then I skimmed…swiping my finger across the screen, eyes cherry picking keywords to broadly grasp what the article was saying – and finally, I hurried to the last paragraph to read the writer’s conclusion. I then read the same article printed in a newspaper: I don’t know why but I somehow read the printed article more ‘fully’. I paused to reflect on concepts I didn’t understand and re-read them. My conclusion was that I read the digital information in a “light” way while I “deep read” the printed article. Of course, this experiment is anecdotal and is true only for me, but I have a strong suspicion that this may mirror your experience when you read a digital article.
This insight was reinforced by a book that I came across; “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World” written by Maryanne Wolf, a researcher, writer, and educator who teaches at UCLA. She quotes research in her book that suggests that widespread use of digital technology is eroding our deep reading abilities, our attention span, our memory, and our general cognitive capabilities. Wolf says that readers in the US read close to 34 gigabytes or the equivalent of 100,000 words a day but as she says “unfortunately, this form of reading is rarely continuous, sustained, or concentrated; rather, the average 34 gigabytes consumed by most of us represent one spasmodic burst of activity after another.”. And the problem with this sort of ‘light’ reading is that it teaches our brain to unlearn or worse, not learn the habit of “deep reading” i.e. reading with attention for a long period of time. She asserts that deep reading helps us in developing empathy, imagination, and critical thinking. Arguing in favour of the printed book, she says that physicality “proffers something both psychologically and tactilely tangible.” i.e. the process of reading the printed word and touching the pages while turning them is an important step toward learning to read deeply.
I sat back and thought about what I’d learnt so far. It sounded logical that reading the printed word rather than the digital text is good for us but the irony that I’d turned to the internet to do my research was not lost on me. What moral standing did I have to tell my child to not research a subject online when I had just done exactly that? If information is power, it now vested in the fingertips of those who tip tap their way through the internet. Was I holding my child back if I did not equip him with the expertise to navigate the digital jungle?
When it comes to reading fiction one can read a printed book or read a book on an eReader. The latter have been evolving since they were first introduced in 2007 to now support features such colour screens and dictionaries. They allow you to change the font size and brightness of the screen. In fact, the introduction of reading apps has eliminated the need for an eReader and you can now read a book on any tablet device, including your phone. I have a Kindle but I don’t enjoy reading on it. I belong to the school of thought that gets a kick out of the feel and touch of a book. I bury my nose in a book to inhale its heady scent that takes me back to my school library, and the promise of a story well told. But could my preference for a printed book be put down to my being old school and therefore old fashioned? Or is there more to it than that?
To get your answers please go to my article 'To Kindle or Not to Kindle - Part 2'