THE BLOG

Why Reading On A Screen Is Bad For Critical Thinking

02/17/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015
  • Naomi S. Baron Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director, Center for Teaching, Research & Learning, American University

screen read

"Think fast!"

As kids, that's what we used to say at school recess when tossing the ball around. Is "Think fast!" what we're now saying when we read?

Historically, thinking and reading have gone hand-in-hand. Eric Havelock argued years back that development of alphabetic writing in Greece enabled a level of analysis not earlier possible. Havelock may have gilded the alpha, beta, gamma, delta lily, but no one who reads Aristotle or Aristophanes doubts these writers gave us a lot to mentally chew on.

"We teach the next generation to decipher words on a page, but as the form of what constitutes a page shifts, so does the nature of reading."
Today there's much talk about what goes by the lofty name "critical thinking." The phrase generally means something like "examine other people's arguments" or "evaluate data." In Beyond the University, Michael Roth suggests the notion of critical thinking is our attempt "to describe the benefits of inquiry that doesn't aim at specialization." Pursuit of critical thinking skills permeates education at all levels. Among the eight million or so Google hits for "critical thinking lower school" are Glenelg Country School's focus on "sharpening critical thinking skills in grades 2 through 5" and Fairfax Country Schools' K through 6 curriculum incorporating "critical and creative thinking lessons."

However you dice it, we want young people to delve into materials with a mindset prepared to take a reasoned, objective stand rather than memorizing or shooting opinions from the hip. What kind of materials? Largely written, and these days, there's the rub. We teach the next generation to decipher words on a page, but as the form of what constitutes a page shifts, so does the nature of reading.

You have to be Rip Van Winkle not to be part of the migration from words in print to words onscreen. Digital devices bring the written word to our virtual doorstep: We read on laptops, eReaders, tablets, and mobile phones. We download books in less time than it takes to pull their physical cousins off the shelf. We travel light, and generally save money.

But when reading long, serious text on digital screens, do we think critically? Increasingly, teachers and students alike are judging that cost and convenience are ample grounds for replacing print with pixels. The conversation that has been missing is whether some types of reading (and types of readers) may be poor candidates for the journey.

Like all technologies, print books and digital screens come with their own affordances, that is, things they're particularly well suited to do. Print is easy to annotate, gives readers a physical sense of place in a book, and has aesthetic properties that even teenagers and young adults continue to value. Digital screens are excellent tools for skimming rapidly or zeroing in on just the passage you're looking for. (Bless whoever created CTRL+F.)

The ways we use technologies lead us to develop particular habits of mind. With print, even though we might skim and scan, the default mindset is continuous reading. It's also focusing on what we're reading, even though sometimes our thoughts wander. Digital technologies engender a different set of habits and practices. Their default state is what I call reading on the prowl. Think of how much time you spend on each hit after doing a Google search. A minute? Ten seconds? And how likely are you to be multitasking while reading onscreen?

Studies I have done with university students in several countries confirm what I bet you'll find yourself observing: When reading either for (school) work or pleasure, the preponderance of students found it easiest to concentrate when reading in print. They also reported multitasking almost three times as much when reading onscreen as when reading in hardcopy.

"The ways we use technologies lead us to develop particular habits of mind. With print, even though we might skim and scan, the default mindset is continuous reading."
Which brings us to thinking fast and critical thinking. Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two systems of mental activity. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and largely unconscious. It's the home of snap judgments. System 2 is slow, logical, and consciously analytical. While Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is hardly about how we read on onscreen or use the internet, it's clear that rapid, intuitive movement through websites characterizes most of our activity when glued to screens. To the extent reading is deliberative, I surmise Kahneman would say it invokes System 2. And I'll also bet most of that deliberation occurs when reading on paper.

A related distinction is between what's called deep reading (that time-consuming process involving reasoning skills and reflection) and hyper reading (a term developed in the late 1990s). In How We Think, Katherine Hayles defines hyper reading as "a strategic response to an information-intensive environment, aiming to conserve attention by quickly identifying relevant information, so that only relatively few portions of a given text are actually read." Not surprisingly, hyper reading is what young people (and, increasingly, many of the rest of us) do when we read onscreen. We make quick judgments, trusting intuition as to what's relevant to read, rather than working -- and thinking -- our way through.

Deep reading takes time, patience, and effort. In distinguishing between fast (System 1) and slow (System 2) thinking, Kahneman reminds us that even when System 2 might be called for, we humans tend to get lazy and defer to the rapid, instinctual judgments of System 1. When we read online, the deck is stacked again System 2 thinking, deep reading, and critical thinking.

Sure, those with ironclad discipline can read, think, and analyze regardless of the reading medium. For the rest of us mortals -- like over 90 percent of the college students I surveyed -- concentration and digital screens don't generally mix. If as parents and teachers we are serious about developing critical thinking in our progeny and students, we need to ask ourselves whether those handy digital devices are helps or hindrances.