NEWS

Reading on a Smartphone May Lead to Poorer Reading Comprehension

woman using mobile phone while lying on bed

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Key Takeaways

  • Smartphones today are used for all levels of reading, from checking emails to consuming novels.
  • A new study suggests that this medium for reading actually reduces reading comprehension.
  • Printing out reading material, or deep breathing while reading on a smartphone, may help with comprehension.

More than 85% of adults in the United States report spending more time reading news on their mobile devices over conventional print media. This isn't that surprising, considering how easily accessible news stories are via our smartphones, as well as the higher level of exposure to news, in general, via social media.

But we don't just consume news on our phones. Smartphones are used to study, read books, look up new information—it's become common to make reading material digitally available for ease of access. But a recent study raises concerns around the trend of a smartphone version of page-turning. The findings suggest that reading on electronic devices actually reduces our comprehension.

Motoyasu Honma, Study author

Even conscious deep breathing has a positive effect on cognitive function, so I propose that those who use smartphone devices for long periods of time should include deep breathing in places

— Motoyasu Honma, Study author

The Research

For this study, researchers focused on visual environment and respiratory patterns, two factors known to be linked to cognitive function and performance. Groups of participants either read on a smartphone or a physical printed text while wearing headbands to monitor prefrontal cortex activity and masks over their mouths and nose to measure respiration.

After participants finished reading, they answered ten comprehension questions. The results, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that participants who read the printed version of the text answered more comprehension questions correctly, but prefrontal cortex activity increased regardless of what medium the individuals read from. Participants who read the printed text also sighed more often compared to those who read off a smartphone.

"There is previous research that shows that even conscious deep breathing has a positive effect on cognitive function, so I propose that those who use smartphone devices for long periods of time should include deep breathing in places," says study author Motoyasu Honma.

Because less sighing was being done by those reading on a smartphone, which involved a more intense cognitive load, researchers suggest this could be to blame for lower levels of comprehension.

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD

We generally tout the benefits of technology in terms of immediate accessibility and access to vast knowledge bases, but often neglect the negative impacts on brain health.

— Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD

Smartphones and Your Brain

While these findings suggest that reading on a smartphone actually lowers reading comprehension when compared to reading on paper, it's important to keep in mind that the study's sample size was only 34 participants. But past research has made similar claims.

One study linked reliance on smartphone usage to "cognitive miserliness," while another's findings revealed that even just having a smartphone within reach can significantly reduce cognitive capacity. Smartphone usage has also been linked to sleep disruption and imbalances in brain chemistry.

"We generally tout the benefits of technology in terms of immediate accessibility and access to vast knowledge bases, but often neglect the negative impacts on brain health," says neurologist Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, who serves as founding neurology department chair and curricular dean of California University of Science and Medicine.

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD

I hypothesize that our brains are then conditioned to expect a flurry of content through electronic media that dilutes dedicated computing power.

— Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD

Lakhan points out that our brains are information processing centers with finite computing power. Whereas printed material contains words on a static page, smartphone screens present dynamic material like links, notifications, apps, tabs and widgets throughout the reading content.

"I hypothesize that our brains are then conditioned, one might say, even primed, to expect a flurry of content through electronic media that dilutes dedicated computing power to individual content like text on a screen, thereby reducing overall reading comprehension," Lakhan says.

For anything of importance that requires a high level of processing and understanding, like contracts, for example, Lakhan recommends printing out the content.

"If this is not feasible, directly applied from this study, start off with a deep breath before reading anything of substance on your phone," he says. "Make sure distractors are turned off both within your phone, like notifications, and in the general environment, like background noise."

Year after year, we rely more heavily on our smartphones for all kinds of information. Will printed media stand the test of time?

"The convenience of smartphones and other electronic devices is immeasurable, and I believe that much of what we do cannot be replaced by paper," Honma says. "However, if both smartphones and paper can serve the same purpose, I would recommend paper."

What This Means For You

Taking deep breaths while reading on a smartphone may help with reading comprehension. But for important material that requires a deep understanding, experts recommend printing out the text first.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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