Is reading on paper the same as reading on a screen?


Screens have become a constant in our daily lives. From dawn to dusk, we interact with digital devices for a variety of purposes, including work, study, and leisure.

This shift towards an increasingly digitalized existence prompts us to reflect on how screens affect our ability to concentrate. Do we learn the same, do we retain the same amount of information, when we read on a screen as when we do it on paper? What are the differences between doing it one way or another?

Digital multitasking and the fragmentation of attention

The digital revolution has brought unprecedented accessibility. We have the world at our fingertips, but managing our attention has become an increasingly challenging task. The need to stay constantly “connected” has radically transformed our social and professional interactions, raising questions about its impact on our ability to concentrate.

Recent research reveals a worrying reality: digital multitasking , far from being an advantageous skill, fragments our attention and decreases our ability to focus on specific tasks and deeply understand content.

This “divided attention” phenomenon suggests that, instead of effectively processing multiple streams of information, our brain simply rapidly alternates its focus, which could impair our ability to concentrate in the long term.

Does it affect the age at which we do it?

Young people, immersed from an early age in a saturated digital environment, are at the center of this transformation. The increase in the prevalence of attention disorders among the youth population has raised alarms about the possible relationship between excessive time in front of the screen and a decrease in the ability to maintain attention.

The current generation of children and adolescents develops in a context where interaction with multiple electronic devices is common. This represents a crucial challenge: how to ensure that this early and constant exposure to screens does not negatively affect their cognitive development and ability to concentrate.

Finding an answer to this dilemma is not easy and requires a collaborative approach that includes educators, parents, and educational and public health policy makers.

Digital reading versus paper

Reading, an essential skill for learning and acquiring knowledge, has not escaped the impact of this digital revolution. Although electronic devices facilitate access to an extensive bibliographic collection, they also introduce distractions that can harm our reading comprehension and retention of information.

Comparative studies between reading on screen and on paper indicate that the latter could favor greater immersion and concentration, possibly due to a lower incidence of interruptions and tactile interaction with the material.

Reading on paper also allows for enrichment of the text through annotations and underlining , which can enhance retention of what has been read. However, it is vital to recognize that personal preferences and the specific context of each reader play a determining role in the effect that each format has on concentration and learning.

Strategies for navigating an era of distractions

Faced with the omnipresence of distractions that characterizes the digital age, the adoption of conscious strategies to manage our attention effectively arises as an imperative.

Setting clear limits on the use of electronic devices, particularly during key times such as study hours or before bed, can significantly contribute to improving the quality of sleep and, consequently, the ability to concentrate during the day.

The practice of meditation emerges  as a promising alternative to strengthen our attention capacity, training the mind to focus on the present moment and reduce its susceptibility to distractions.

Rediscovering the pleasure and benefits of reading on paper, on the other hand, not only acts as a counterweight to digital information overload, but also offers the opportunity to reconnect with a deeper and more reflective mode of learning.

Towards a balance in the digital age

The real challenge we face at the crossroads of the digital age is not to give up technology completely, but to find a balance that allows us to take advantage of its advantages without compromising our ability to concentrate. Measures such as limiting the use of screens and revaluing reading on paper do not seek to isolate us from technological advances, but rather to encourage a healthier and more meaningful interaction with them.

Our attention is a valuable resource. We must understand that we must protect it as a measure to maintain and improve our cognitive health and emotional well-being. Doing so will ensure that the promise of the digital age is realized in ways that enrich our lives.

By reclaiming control over our attention, we will help make the digital age a time of empowerment and enrichment, paving the way to a future in which technology and human focus coexist in harmony. Ultimately, the challenge we face is more human than technological.

Author Bio: Dunia Martínez Fortuny is Professor of CLIL and Research Methods and Trends in Bilingual Education at the International University of Valencia