It’s common wisdom that reading short bursts of information online subtly changes the way you process paper-based written information, but here’s a nice comforting report on just how that works:

Researchers are working to get a clearer sense of the differences between online and print reading — comprehension, for starters, seems better with paper — and are grappling with what these differences could mean not only for enjoying the latest Pat Conroy novel but for understanding difficult material at work and school. There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.

The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.

“The brain is plastic its whole life span,” Wolf said. “The brain is constantly adapting.”

While all of this is undoubtedly true—I zoned out while reading someone’s Twitter profile the other day—and it doesn’t bode well for the continued survival of the works of George Sand and Thomas Pynchon, it’s worth remembering that every new media brings alarm in how it will change the kids. The ancient Greeks thought that writing stuff down would ruin the memory because before that you had to just memorize everything.

Reading online and on the printed page definitely affects aspects of comprehension and attention. I’m sure literacy will eventually be defined as being able to find things on Twitter. And that will be okay because everyone but that one old cranky dude will communicate via Twitter. Still: brain rot.


  1. I like the idea of supporting “bilingualism” between electronic and print media. On the one hand, people obviously need to be able to keep up with standard technology. On the other hand, there is obviously nuance and depth-thinking that is lost when people go headlong into soundbytes and electronic media.

    “I’m sure literacy will eventually be defined as being able to find things on Twitter.”

    I think that’s a ridiculous statement. Being able to “find” things on Twitter? More reading is already done online than is done on newsprint. We crossed this threshold years ago. The definition of literacy itself doesn’t change between media. There are things called “computer-literate” or “Twitter-literate”. But literature and reading itself? It means knowing how to read. Reading now includes txt-speak, but it’s ALWAYS included the ability to comprehend abbreviations. A lot of ancient cultures (Greek, Jewish) rarely even wrote vowels in the first place.

    So much of this stuff is nothing new, but the current generation seems to think that they’re the first ones to grapple with it and that doing so is somehow heroic. No, it’s inevitable. But if you can retain the benefits of previous mindsets (mostly having to do with memory and deep-thinking), then you come out ahead.

    People shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most of the people who bring this information to us are, almost by definition, self-confessed Twitter-obsessives.

  2. Aside from the brisk content that you read online(without much context, too) when one reads a book or magazine there are no moving ads to compete for your attention. I don’t know about the rest of you but I look at the ads more online than on paper.

  3. I read the same article a couple of days ago, and what bothered me was the conflating of online, digital, screens, and skimming vs. print in-depth reading. Personally, I read very differently while sitting at my computer vs. checking my phone vs. reading an ebook on a tablet or dedicated reader — and yet those are *all* digital, screen media.

    I put together a few more thoughts on the issue at my blog, in case anyone’s interested:

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