Screen reading hurts your brain

Problem solving + divided attention = cognitive overload

It’s been proven in the lab: Online multitasking temporarily lowers your IQ more than smoking weed. (And, from what I’ve read, is a much less interesting way to get stupid.)

Screen reading reduces comprehension

Brain melt Screen reading reduces comprehension, reading speed and more. Image by abstrusa

That’s according to a 2005 study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London and funded by Hewlett-Packard.

Is screen reading making you feel stupid? If so, join the crowd. Because while the web is best for helping people find information, it’s not so good at helping them understand it. (Comprehension, on the other hand, is print’s superpower.)

Blame it on cognitive overload.

Online, constant problem solving (To click, or not to click?) plus divided attention (You’ve got mail!) leads to cognitive overload.

And cognitive overload, wrote Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain, causes us to lose the ability to think and reason.

System failure

System failure Online, constant problem solving (To click, or not to click?) plus divided attention (You’ve got mail!) leads to cognitive overload. Image by Ann Wylie

“Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle,” Carr writes. “That’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”

Among other things:

1. Screen reading reduces reading speed.

People read 20% to 30% slower online, according to a survey of nearly 30 years of research by Andrew Dillon, Ph.D. Dillon is the Louis T. Yule Regents Professor of Information at the University of Texas.

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen splits the difference: Screen reading takes 25% longer, he says.

Reading on mobile takes even longer, writes Kate Meyer, a user experience specialist for Nielsen Norman Group. People spend about 30 milliseconds more per word when reading on a phone than when reading on a laptop or desktop computer.

2. Screen reading cuts comprehension.

When 1 million North Carolina middle-school students received computers and internet access from 2000 to 2005, their math and reading scores declined, found Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd.

The reason: They were distracted by the web. (Hey, given the choice between spending the afternoon solving fraction problems or spending it on DumbWaysToDie, I’d go for the website, too!)

The web’s interactive nature also makes the medium harder to understand. After all, it’s not easy to focus on the text when you’re also clicking and navigating.

When participants in one study read Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” in hypertext, for instance, three-quarters had trouble following the story, according to researchers David S. Miall and Teresa Dobson. Just one in
10 who read linear text struggled to understand the story.

The reason? The web readers’ attention, Miall and Dobson said, “was directed toward the machinery of the hypertext and its functions rather than to the experience offered by the story.”

Mobile makes matters worse. Webpages are 48% harder to understand on an iPhone than on the big screen, according to research by R.I. Singh and colleagues from the University of Alberta.

In the study, 50 participants completed Cloze tests while reading webpages of 10 large companies on desktop- and iPhone-sized screens. People understood:

  • 39% of what they read on a desktop screen
  • Just 19% of what they read on mobile screens

“It’s much harder to understand complicated information when you’re reading through a peephole,” writes usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

3. Screen reading reduces action.

When the IRS improved its webpages about tax law changes, employee call center accuracy increased by 10%, reports TJ Larkin of Larkin Communications Consulting.

When the bureau printed the exact same webpages and left them in employees’ cubicles, accuracy increased by 42%.

Reach readers online.

So, how do we overcome cognitive overload to get the word out to web readers?

  • Get to the point faster

    Because web visitors spend 80% of their time above the fold

    Consider the numbers:

    • Web visitors spend 80% of the time above the fold, or on the first screen of a webpage, and just 20% below the fold.
    • Material near the top of a webpage gets 17x the attention of that near the bottom.
    • The average difference in how users treat information above vs. below the fold is 84%.

    Get to the point faster

    But where’s the fold? Content that shows up above the fold on a 30-inch monitor can take as many as five screens on a smartphone.

    Reach readers where their eyes are.

    So how can you reach your readers where their eyes are?

    At Writing for the Web and Mobile — our two-day hands-on web-writing master class on June 12-13 in Chicago — you’ll learn how to:

    • Pass the 1-2-3-4 test to put your message where web visitors' eyes are. Tip: Try this simple test on your smartphone for best results.
    • Make it a mullet — and 4 more steps for writing effective web heads. (No. 5 is the most important thing you can do to improve the ROI of your site.)
    • Optimize webpages for Google and humans with our three-part test. Note: If you're still using SEO tricks you learned in the 'oughts, Google may be penalizing your pages.
    • Don't drop the deck. Learn to make the most of the best-read element on your webpage.
    • Steal headline-writing tips from the BBC — the source of the best news heads on the web, according to Nielsen.

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