A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Physical Effects of E-Reading

by on February 24, 2014

We’re in the middle of an e-reading craze. Libraries are dashing around to add more digital titles to their catalogs. Libraries are lending out e-readers and even opening bookless branches. (See past PLA Online articles here and here.) We know that e-reading offers tons of great benefits for readers; but let’s slow down a minute and consider possible adverse effects.

According to a recent Scientific American article, reading paper versus electronic material makes a difference when it comes to memory and learning. In digital format, readers tend to skim, looking for keywords. As a result the full content of the material is often lost.

Screen reading takes more mental energy thereby leaving less for actual content retention. Students who read text via a computer screen did a little bit worse on a reading comprehension test than those students who used actual textbooks. During the test, they were able to look back at their textbooks for answers. The students who used actual textbooks retained not only more information but memory as to where that information was located.

Also, “seeing” only a page or two at a time rather than the whole book is disorienting to the reader. Although most e-readers have a digital readout somewhere on the screen of the readers progress within the book, that’s not enough. To physically hold the book and flip through individual pages makes the reader feel more grounded to the experience than a simple readout of her progress on the screen. When readers are grounded to the experience, material is more likely to be remembered.

This article, as well as a recent report by ABC News, lists the physical side effects of e-reading. Headaches and neck pain are the biggest complaints of those who use e-readers. Eye strain and dry eyes are others. Nearly 70% of American adults show these side effects according to the ABC News report.

And the concern is higher for children. E-readers are often the only device children read nowadays so the side effects mentioned above could harm children at an early age. If not caught, the harm could lead to more problems earlier in life.

There are ways to prevent these issues. Don’t spend more than 20 minutes at a time staring at an e-reader or computer screen. Be sure to blink often to lubricate your eyes. Take many breaks. Be sure to do safe neck exercises to ward off a stiff neck and shoulders.

Or just read an actual book!