Print vs Screen – Does the Paperless Office Work?
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Print vs Screen – Does the Paperless Office Work?

In the rush to adopt the new ideal of the paperless office, we may be interfering with our ability to understand and process information according to some new scientific studies.

Old school paper vs digital technology

A recent article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American called: ‘The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper vs. Screens’, discusses a study by Ann Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway. It suggests digital screens may change the way we read and, as a result, diminish our understanding of the text itself.

The study took 72 10th-grade students, all with comparable reading skills, and asked them to “study one narrative and one expository text, each about 1,500 words in length. Half the students read the texts on paper and half read them in pdf files on computers with 15-inch liquid-crystal display (LCD) monitors.”

Afterwards the students were given reading comprehension tests during which they were free to refer to both texts. Interestingly, those who read the articles on a screen didn’t do as well as the students who read them on paper.

Mangen believed that the issue was that the PDF readers found it more difficult to locate specific pieces of information. The students who read printouts had an understanding of the text in its entirety, which helped them find the answers they sought on the page quickly. By contrast, the act of scrolling or flicking between pages meant the PDF readers were robbed of that spatial understanding and, as a consequence, struggled.

In depth reading vs online skimming

A similar article appeared in the Washington Post, where cognitive neuroscientists observed an alarming change in the way people process information when reading on a screen. The article suggests: “Humans… seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and leading authority on the study of reading said: “I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” In other words, we’re getting out of the habit of taking the time to understand and process the information before us, then thinking about it to make an informed decision.

There is also the fact that digital media often denies traditional prompts like scrawling notes and observations in the margins, or highlighting specific passages for referral later on.

Good intentions vs good comprehension

There are indisputable, ecologically responsible reasons to avoid printing every document we read, and anything that can help preserve our precious natural resources should be embraced. Digital technology enables us to do this, but we need to ensure this efficiency does not come at the price of productivity and effectiveness.

Although going digital is a great way to cut costs and do your bit for the planet, it might not be the best way to work for many of us. So if you need to gain a thorough understanding of a given brief or text, check it out on the screen then send it to the printer and study it properly -you’ll be better off for it!