Screens are replacing paper when it comes to nearly every aspect of communication, but is it good for our mental health? Research proves the countless mental health benefits of reading, but still most people are choosing screen-time over picking up a book when it comes to entertainment.
Even in schools, gone are the days of buying those stretchy book covers for your heavy textbooks; digital modalities of learning are taking precedence, lightening backpacks but burdening young minds with the challenge of staying on-task in a sea of digital distractions. Reading short blurbs on social media as we scroll inhibits not only our attention span, making lengthy books more arduous for our dopamine-addicted brains to digest, but often waters down the language, using more informal, conversational-style writing that offers much less exposure to rich, brain-boosting vocabulary and concepts.
Research suggests that comprehension is six to eight times better with physical books than e-readers (Altamura, L., Vargas, C., & Salmerón, L., 2023). Though many people find they can read faster on a device, the distractions, like social media scrolling, advertisements, and email notifications, often hinder memory retention. Physical books provide an immersive experience, resulting in readers who absorb and recall the content more effectively.
Holding the weight of a book in your hand, turning the pages, and even highlighting your favorite passages are all experienced in the body. In fact, according to researchers, turning pages as we read creates an “index” in the brain, mapping what we read visually to a particular page, (Rothkopf, Ernst Z.,1971). This is part of what allows the brain to retain the information better when read from a physical book.
From the way you position your body when holding a book, to the way your head and eyes adjust to scan the pages as they turn, there are distinct differences in the way our bodies experience reading a good old-fashioned book. “Print books and the substrate of paper lend an obvious physicality to individual texts, while e-books are not tangible volumes and are differently touched, held, carried and navigated,” wrote Mangen, A., and van der Weel, A. in “The evolution of reading in the age of digitisation: an integrative framework for reading research,” (2016, p. 116–124). “The haptic feedback of a touch screen is different from a paper book, and the implications of such interactions warrant empirical investigations. Studies in experimental psychology and neuroscience show that object manipulation provides spatial information which is crucial for building coherent mental representations of the manipulated object.”
In addition to improving comprehension and providing an immersive, embodied experience, reading physical books offers a uniquely social experience that e-readers miss out on. Whether you’re perusing the shelves at the bookstore, coffee in hand, asking your local librarian for recommendations from their collection, or passing along your copy of a favorite book to a friend, interacting with fellow book lovers is one of the aspects of reading that people most enjoy. Downloading books onto your e-reader bypasses these opportunities for connection.
Perhaps what is most salient is the undeniably strong preference most people have for reading printed books. In one study, 92 percent of students reportedly preferred print books over e-books (Baron, N. S., 2015). There’s something special about holding a book in your hand, admiring the cover art, even appreciating the way your bookmark visually advances with time spent turning the pages.