Research-backed benefits of reading on paper

Digital devices have quite simply changed media forever. Our smartphones and laptops have brought forward exhilarating new ways to tell stories and share information. Audiences, meanwhile, have more control than ever over the types of media and forms of content they consume.

This all sounds glorious. Yet, there’s a problem — and it relates to reading. When we sit down to dig into a long or complex text, like a piece of investigative journalism, say, or an industry report, we’ll often struggle. Something doesn’t click. The information doesn’t quite “go in”. And we get distracted easily.

Why? Well, that’s what we want to discuss in this article. Since digital content became ubiquitous, scientists have been investigating this problem. And the result? Simply, screens just are not the best place for focused deep reading. But, luckily, there’s an alternative. 

At Screenbreak, we’re flying the flag for paper. Here, we want to share the benefits of reading from paper. And that doesn’t make us simply old school, by the way. Because science is on our side.

Why you might struggle to read from a screen

Devices (and their screens) have opened up a world of possibility for content creators. Yet, for readers, they’ve been a mixed blessing. They’ve delivered us all new creative opportunities — but they seem to have killed our focused concentration, too. At least when it comes to reading.

But is this impression actually true? Do we really struggle to read on screens? In short, yes. Allow us to give you some reasons why.

  • Interruptions. First up, distraction. We’re talking ads, pop-ups, notifications, updates — all the things that continually demand our attention online (or even offline, but on-screen). According to one study by Microsoft, we get distracted every 40 seconds online. And this isn’t great for concentrated reading.

  • Attention rabbit holes. Even when notifications are off, you may still not be deep reading those texts. There’s no surprise when every text you read is surrounded by “read next” hooks or “popular now” clickbait. It’s all competing for your attention, but that’s the point. And you can resurface hours later not knowing how you ended up there.

  • Glare, flicker, reflection. It’s not just the content itself that’s the problem. The nature of screens themselves affects your ability to concentrate. How? Researchers have found, for example, that on-screen glare undermines your reading comprehension, by affecting your “binocular coordination”. This in turn produces visual fatigue, meaning you’re just not taking in the words.

  • On-screen reading habits. Part of the problem with reading on-screen is habit. It seems we imagine we read more easily on-screen, and so put in less effort. But, according to research, that means we pay less attention to the structure of the argument or narrative and rely more heavily on keyword scanning, heading navigation, and Ctrl+F functions. And when we try to read something on-screen that requires more effort, we inevitably struggle.

5 concrete benefits of reading from paper

So, we’ve heard plenty about the limitations of screens. But what is it about paper that makes for a better reading experience? It’s actually a case of the physical nature of the page — and the attitudes that you bring to reading. These help your comprehension, your recall, and your appreciation of the text.

Let’s take them one at a time. Here are 5 research-backed benefits to reading from paper.

The physical page helps your memory

The mind works in mysterious ways. But one of the things that makes it work best is space, or a sense of location.

How does this relate to reading? Well, “space” is something that paper offers to our reading experience. You have a book (for example) that you hold in your hand and words are laid out and immoveable on it. 

You turn back a page to refer to a line detail you remember — and you find it where you left it on the bottom left-hand corner. This isn’t merely an impression. Studies have found that location is one of the parts of recalling information.

When words move on a static screen, this sense of location gets lost from device-based reading. And that matters – because it undermines your understanding and, crucially, impedes your ability to recall details.

You read slower on paper and, with more effort (and that’s a good thing!)

We mentioned above that we bring habits and expectations to our reading experience. If we expect to read more easily on-screen (and so put in less effort), our habits tell us that we need to take more time to read on paper. That’s because we actually put in more effort when reading on paper, meaning we concentrate more too.

That’s a good thing for the reading experience. Ultimately, reading requires and deserves effort. Without effort, we glance over the deeper elements of the text and pay less attention to the detail. Luckily, paper inspires us to read more carefully and more thoughtfully.

Paper offers less distractions — and less strain

If the online world these days is filled with distractions, the conventional view is that reading on paper doesn’t have the same conflicting demands. This is absolutely true, but in a more fundamental way perhaps than you expected. Without a screen shining light in your eyes, there’s less visual stimulation, meaning you are more likely to get lost in the words themselves.

Meanwhile, reading on paper removes strain in different ways. One overlooked nuisance of on-screen reading is scrolling. This isn’t a simple mechanical movement like turning a page. Instead, you have to aim. Studies suggest that this can peel off mental resources from where they could be put to better use.

By the way, the lower stimulation of the physical page aids focus for people with conditions such as ADHD, studies have found. As one of our customers told us, “with Screenbreak, I’ve been reading 2 or 3 times more offline, because of the lack of distractions. I can’t thank you enough for this as someone with ADHD”.  

The longer the text, the better the effect of paper

What most researchers seem to agree on is that the longer the text, the more strongly the benefits of reading on paper are felt. With longer texts, the downsides of the screen accumulate. Onscreen, over the length of a novel, you are more likely to forget the correct course of events. And it appears to be more difficult to recall specific details too.

That’s why taking longform content offscreen is particularly important. You are much more likely to appreciate it in its completeness and complexity on paper.

You probably enjoy reading from paper more

Finally, while it’s highly subjective, studies have found that you’re more likely to enjoy reading — and enjoy the content you’re reading – if you read it from paper. 

It might, of course, only be a signal of the strength of habit — the power of our ways. By this we mean that people still enjoy reading from paper more because they’re not yet fully comfortable with digital. 

However, it may be because this makes reading a more valuable, focused, and rewarding experience. 

Conclusion: finding a balance between different media

At Screenbreak, we help readers take their favourite online content offline — so they can appreciate it better. Our browser extension turns digital texts into PDFs and paper booklets that are clean, beautiful, and highly-readable. Screenbreak helps serious readers curate and realise their own personal magazine, built purely from the content they love most.

While we’re firm believers in the benefits of reading on paper, we have nothing against online content. Instead, we recognise that some forms are better enjoyed differently. And when it comes to long-form written content, we believe it’s best enjoyed offline.