What’s Changed About the Way We Read

From parchment scroll to paperback books to e-reader screens, people have been reading in some way or another for thousands of years.

But recently, something has changed.

For one, the focus has shifted from paper pages to computer screens.

Has this shift caused people to read differently than they did before?

And is this a good or a bad thing?

Let’s take a closer look at the present situation to answer those questions…

We Read More Than We Ever Have Before

With the increase of screens and digital text messages, we’re reading more than we ever have before. In fact, one report estimates that from 1980 to the late 2000s, the amount of time people spend reading has tripled. 

So...more reading is good, right? Well it depends on how you look at it.

We’re reading more, yes, but are we really processing the information we take in?

We read more now than we ever have before.

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Think about it. When was the last time you actually read a full article on your computer or even in a magazine?

Most people might not even remember the last time they did this because we’ve become a society that skims articles for the important details.

Hey, you may not even finish this blog post.

But no worries. We get it.

We are busy.

So instead of taking the time to sit back, relax and read an article - or even a book for that matter - we read on the go, skimming and scanning for interesting information while skipping the vast majority of the words on the page.

Plus, with words and messages constantly bombarding us throughout the course of the day, our attention spans are shortening, which in turn prompts us to skim even more often than before, just because we find it difficult to focus on one thing for too long.

Skimming - is it a good thing or a bad thing?

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What’s Caused All the Skimming?

Being busy and having lots of material to read isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon - so why is it that “skimming” is on the rise?

It could be due to the screens we’re constantly staring at.

In 2005, a study was done at San Jose University to study the way in which reading has changed over the past decade. The results show us that when people read on screens, more time is spent skimming the text for keywords and important details than actually reading the article in full. And this less in-depth, slightly fragmented reading can cause readers to feel distracted, shortening attention spans drastically over time.

Additionally, a study performed by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology showed that when text was read on screen, less information was absorbed and the meaning of the text/story was not understood as well as when it was read on paper. The screens created more distractions, causing lower attention levels and decreased understanding. 

It’s also been reported that for the average web page, readers take in approximately 28% of the words they read - the rest are just skimmed over in an attempt to move on to the next piece of information.

And while skimming isn’t always a bad thing, it starts to become a bigger problem when it transfers to other types of reading. 

How Skimming Affects Other Areas of Reading

When we’re constantly skimming web content all day long, it becomes difficult for our brains to switch over to “non-skimming” mode.

So when we sit down to read something important or more in-depth than the average online article (like a novel or lengthy non-fiction book), we inadvertently still find ourselves skimming the words on the page, not really taking in the true meaning behind what we are reading.

Often we miss the entire point of the book in front of us, and sometimes even have to go back and reread what we’ve just read for more clarity.

Cognitive neuroscientists have even gone so far as to declare this new way of reading an actual problem, raising the question as to whether or not humans are developing increasingly digital brains that are predisposed to skimming rather than reading via more traditional methods.

Screens have changed the way we read.

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We may be able to digest a lot more information much more quickly this way, but are we really able to comprehend the true meaning behind the words we are reading?

It’s a valid question. One that will take time and further testing to answer indefinitely. But the fact remains that screens and continuous distractions have caused us to change the way in which we read - whether that is ultimately for the good or the bad, only time will tell.

In our next blog post, we’ll be exploring how these trends affect your content. So stay tuned!

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About the Author

Nicknamed the 'female David Ogilvy’, Sue Rice is famous for her exquisite writing skills and strategic savvy. A native Californian and Stanford University graduate, she launched her career on Madison Avenue in the 90s and eventually helped run BBDO Europe in Paris as their Communications Director. Now a 7-figure entrepreneur, Sue helps businesses create high-quality content that attracts clients, builds brands and skyrockets sales.