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Psychology of Reading: E-books vs. Print

E-books are a part of many daily lives in the modern world. There are many benefits to the format of e-books that print books do not enjoy, but there seem to be many drawbacks, even beyond simple preferences. E-books enjoy portability, unbelievable access to numerous books, and the convenience of having e-books on devices that one would have at hand anyway. However, there are psychological benefits to reading print and digital books, but it seems that there are several cons to reading digital books compared to print that must be considered. 

Print books are notorious for being preferred by many, but aside from this, there are benefits psychologically to reading print compared to digital. One example of this is what can be called mental mapping. Like how many can visualize driving in certain directions to arrive at a specific destination, print books allow our brain to mentally map and remember where we read certain texts which digital books have not been able to recreate. Another example of a psychological benefit to reading print is the sense of sovereignty when reading a paper book. Many feel less in control of digital books than they do paper. Some of this can be attributed to a lack of digital ownership, but when considering the sense of sovereignty, what is really in mind is the ability to manipulate the physical copy in various ways to their enjoyment and benefit.  

E-books present various disadvantages or consequences to the medium. There are multiple studies that note the extra cognitive work that reading digitally requires. They mention that there is an extra visual burden reading digitally due to optic strain from screens. Beyond this though, digital reading causes the feeling of needing to complete dual tasks. One must operate the computer itself and complete whatever is trying to be achieved (the digital reading). The burdens caused by digital reading can be exacerbated by time pressures.  

In the relatively recent past, several studies noticed a considerable difference in comprehension between reading digitally and reading in a print format. However, in more recent years, more studies show little to no difference in actual comprehension no matter the format. The study performed by Mangen et al notes the insignificant difference in comprehension but does note the issue with mental mapping mentioned above.  

Another facet of the psychological effect of reading e-books compared to their print format is that of mindset. In an experiment meant to measure mindset when approaching studying using print versus digital expositions, one group was given seven minutes to read and take a quiz about the exposition while the other group was given as much time as they wished to self-manage their study time. The group whose time was limited performed equally well whether they studied using digital reading or print reading. However, in the group that self-managed their studying, those students who read digitally to study performed considerably worse than those who used print resources. The results indicate a difference in mindset approaching the task. Those who used print are believed to have approached the task with a more studious, serious mindset.  

One potential benefit of reading digitally, especially for kids and teenagers, is simply the format. The National Literacy Trust conducted a survey concerning whether children through teenagers are encouraged to read more due to digital formats. They found that children are nearly 69% more likely to read on a screen than print outside of school and around 52% of children reported they prefer to read on electronic devices than print. However, other studies indicate that kids may be distracted when reading digitally compared to print. This distraction can also be an issue for adults due to notifications, emails, and other forms of distractions that are meant to grab one’s attention.  

Another issue when comparing the psychology of reading digitally to that of reading print books is that of enjoyment of reading generally. This is not the same as simply preferring print or electronic books but rather is comparing the love for reading generally between those who read print daily and those who read electronic books daily. The National Literacy Trust survey gives readers a glimpse of this measurement with children between the ages of 8-16. Those who read print daily were three times more likely to say that they liked to read “very much” compared to those who read digitally daily. That is 81.3% for those who read print only daily compared to 44.5% for those who read digitally only daily.  

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to reading digitally compared to reading in a print format. However, there seem to be many psychological disadvantages to reading digitally that are not found when reading print books. From mental mapping to simple enjoyment of reading generally, reading in print displays numerous psychological advantages that e-books cannot provide. Though, practical advantages to e-books may outweigh the psychological consequences of e-books for many. Either way, knowing and understanding the psychological effects of reading digitally compared to reading in print can help one make more well-informed decisions regarding their reading habits.