Are online skimming habits making us worse serious readers?

keep-calm-and-embrace-technology-2 (2)It seems appropriate, given the previous post about the ways in which technology helps or hinders our communication, to discuss how these new tools have also impacted the way we interpret the information we’re given. It’s nice to think that we as English majors can transition seamlessly between old and new media outlets, appreciating the feeling (and let’s not forget the smell!) of an actual tangible book while still keeping up to date with the new helpful technologies available to us. But the truth is that getting used to reading in the newer and more common formats, such as on a computer screen or smartphone, really can — and does — influence how we read “real books.”

In an article from Sunday’s Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald points out that our reading behavior with more serious texts has come to mimic our online, internet-surfing reading habits. One neuroscientist described this reading as “superficial” and said she worries that it is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing. I’ve certainly noticed this in my own reading habits, and find it endlessly frustrating.

weapons-of-mass-distractionOn the internet, we skim. We look for important words that are of interest to us and if we can’t find them, we click on to the next page. I know I’m not alone in this. In our class discussion today someone from the group working on the Walter Harding website talked about including things like a letter from Albert Einstein to give the audience a reason to be interested and stay focused, since the eye is so easily diverted on the internet. It’s true! If we don’t immediately find something that piques our interest, we move on.

When I have important readings for class that are online, I have to close all other tabs and even use the Readability add-on that Dr. Schacht showed us earlier in the semester just to keep myself from getting distracted. It’s like my brain automatically assumes that if I’m reading on a computer monitor it must not be important, so my eyes start looking for “clickables.” To quote from Rosenwald’s article, “The brain is the innocent bystander in this new world. It just reflects how we live.” Clearly our leisurely habits are sneaking into our serious work as well.

ac4bb8a5ec3201c597967935c7ccfa94-617x411I encourage you to think about how you’ve experienced this just over the course of your time reading this blog post. You probably looked at the pictures, clicked the links to other websites (and maybe even other links on those sites), went to another tab to answer a Facebook message, and countless other things. I did all of that while writing the post too! Most of us are guilty of this habit, and that’s just what it is: a habit. We’re like little squirrels running around on the internet. Our focus is on one page until something more interesting (and not even necessarily better) comes along, at which point we leave our first focus entirely, sometimes struggling to remember how we got there in the first place. On one hand, it’s great that we have so much information readily available to us, and my guess is that there has to be a study out there somewhere regarding benefits of technology on our multitasking abilities! But when we’re so used to being bombarded with all of this, taking the time to slow down and isolate ourselves for a task without so many distractions can be a challenge.

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