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Has the Internet Changed Our Ability to Read?

I have a lot of reviews to catch up on, but I was intrigued by an article in today’s Washington Post, and wanted to get readers’ opinions.  The article says that the way we read online, basically scanning bits and pieces, is making it more difficult for us to read novels in a linear, focused way.  A 35-year old graduate student says that “It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say.”

My perspective is a bit different, because as a reader I’ve always had that challenge.  Often when I read I find myself mentally racing ahead, and then I find I haven’t paid enough attention to the details.  I can focus when I need to, but it’s a conscious effort.  That’s always been the case, long before there was an Internet.

Since I’ve entered my 40’s, my ability to concentrate has definitely diminished.  I used to be able to read anything, anywhere – standing in line, listening to music, or on a crowded bus.  Now, for a serious literary novel I need silence.

Scientists know that the ability to develop new neural pathways is much different for young children than it is for older folks, which is why kids can pick up technology and languages so much easier.  Their brains actually re-map themselves. So it makes sense that younger people (now I sound really old) will be more impacted by reading online than older readers.  My brain just isn’t changing as much.

So, if you’re in your 20’s and 30’s, have you seen your ability to read change over the years?  Do you have a harder time focusing, reading in a linear, focused way?

And what do you think about the idea of a “slow reading” movement – do we need to put more emphasis on slow or “deep” reading, give ourselves the chance to really savor the words on the page?

I still love reading long, complex novels; they just require a little more work than they did when I was younger.  I attribute that to age, not the Internet.  Then again, I could be wrong.

13 thoughts on “Has the Internet Changed Our Ability to Read?

  1. I think that children growing up nowadays with mobile phones, iPads etc will probably be effected by this the most because it will effect them from a very early period. My nieces and nephews all know what to do with an iPhone or iPad. I personally don’t even have a smart phone of any kind and can’t stand the bloody things or how people seem to be permanently attached to the things. You can’t even have a conversation without people getting it out and fiddling.

    I think there’s the good and the bad… you can find information faster now. If you have a question about a specific Roman emperor, you can find out about them quickly without the treck down the library or having to own ten encyclopaedias. You won’t get as detailed a history on them as in a book but many times when you want to fill a knowledge gap you don’t need to study them deeply.

    I’m in my late twenties and the internet only became important to me when I was 13 or 14 so I think the important parts of my youth were not effected so much.

    I find Kindles harder to pay attention to than real books – so I can see why younger people may find reading harder. Using Kindles, or maybe the iPad or your phone to read you do dart here and there.

    Although, thinking of it – I guess I do find it harder to remain in one place without getting distracted. Reading opens up questions which are easily resolved by popping on the Internet. Which then distracts me from carrying on reading.

    So yes – I think computers, being online has changed my reading. However I don’t think it is a problem… as much as it might be for a younger generation.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Nice to see this post has generated nice long responses… I agree about the good and bad of information technology. Also agree that it’s easier to be distracted by smartphones, etc. I don’t use my phone very much either.

  2. I really have, and I think a lot of it has to do with spatial awareness. When I read a book (or even an ebook on my Kindle), I have a good sense of progress that keeps me grounded. That is missing when I read articles online, and I find myself constantly thinking “this article is too long!” when it probably isn’t even a thousand words. So I end up skipping ahead because I “want to get to the point,” but what do I miss in that process? I think this likely comes from social networking, not necessarily all reading that takes place online. When most of your news comes in 140 character bursts, you kind of lose sight of what it means to develop ideas. I see this in my own reading, like I’ve said, and also in my students’ abilities to concentrate and comprehend the texts we read for class. In some ways, the younger generations (myself included, at 25) are used to things happening in quick bursts and not being asked to concentrate for long periods, and the internet facilitates that, making it more difficult for us to improve concentration and comprehension skills (in my opinion).

    • Thanks for the comment! I keep hearing that writing skills are being impacted. I definitely think I read differently when I look at a computer screen and when I read a book, but I can still spend hours with a novel when I have the time. Agree that twitter and FB probably really affect how we talk and write (even think…)

  3. I haven’t found this to be a problem (I’m in my late 20s), I think internet reading and book reading are very different skills, so I approach them in different ways.
    However, I teach 8 year olds and I think it will definitely be a problem for them, they have trouble maintaining attention on books.

    • Thanks for the comment, interesting to have the perspective of a teacher on this! 8 yrs old is such a critical time for reading, too. There’s so much great children’s fiction for that age group.

  4. This reminds me of a book I read a few years ago which argued that the Internet is changing our brains by encouraging us to think in bite size pieces. it included research showing that when we read on line (including e books) we don’t retain as much info as when we read on the page. I know I tend to skim when I read my e-reader

    • Thanks Bookertalk! I read just as well on my e-reader, personally, so I’ve never quite bought that research, but then I think they lump ALL e-readers together, and reading on an Ipad is so different from reading on a dedicated reader. I do think when I’m using a computer I read very differently than when I read a book. Interesting point about retention.

      • I also know that if I have to proof read a document then it’s essential to prints it.mif I rely just on the screen, I miss many errors

  5. I think when I’m reading an article or something online I’m not super invested in it, and I tend to skim and read the highlights, but when I read a book, I know I’m usually interested in it already and in it for the duration, so I give it more attention and focus.

    I’m 21 and I don’t think the internet has changed my ability to read or focus, it just let’s me read in a different way. For kids just learning to read, growing up with iPads and kindles, etc, might make them more likely to read in a more scattered way, but you never know, it could help them too!

    • Thanks for the comment! I think people are reading as much as ever, so it makes sense that the younger generation just adapts differently to the technology. And they’ll have access to information I never did… but I imagine it’s challenging for teachers to adapt to different ways of processing information.

  6. Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments! I’m curious how many people say that it’s harder to read on Kindles, because I haven’t found that. But I like the plain, non-color Kindle with no graphics because it looks just like a book to me. I have a Fire but don’t like to read on it.

    I think in general it’s a lot easier to be distracted these days! Too much information all the time… for example I hate all the things that pop up or scroll across the TV. On the other hand the access to information is pretty awesome.

    And I also hate when people use their phones every minute just to look up random things or take pics of everything. Though I do find myself addicted to some of the games lately.

    I think today’s kids will learn to read different things in different ways, and teaching will have to reflect that.

  7. This is very interesting. I’ve wondered what the new focus on technology will do to reading. Will it change it? Will it make it harder to concentrate?

    I just turned 40 myself but I’ve always had a bit of trouble not racing ahead. There are times when I have to stop and force myself to go back a page and read thoughtfully.

    I’m nervous/excited to see what reading will be like in the future.

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