Reading and Our Attention Spans

distracted reading

Here’s something that has been interesting me lately: since we are reading more and more on our tablets, what does that mean for our reading habits? To that end, The Atlantic Wire asks: “Are Tablets Killing Our Attention Span for Books?” —

“Today in the “modern life is hard” department: Reading books on tablets may be more difficult than reading print books. Sure, a tablet is lighter, more convenient, and saves you a trip to the bookstore, but these devices also make it very, very hard to focus. With the e-reader sales surge this holiday season (according to Pew Research, the number of American adults owning tablets nearly doubled from December to January), Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel are exploring the possible dark side to this first world problem in the New York Times.”

For longer bouts of reading, I do prefer my Kindle Paperwhite (with the Wifi turned off). Better to remove the temptations of distraction technology than to exert more willpower resisting those distractions, right?

“The tablet is like a temptress,” said James McQuivey, the Forrester Research analyst who led the survey. “It’s constantly saying, ‘You could be on YouTube now.’ Or it’s sending constant alerts that pop up, saying you just got an e-mail. Reading itself is trying to compete.”

In terms of our reading habits, the good news is that the tablet can do a lot of different things. But the bad news is that the tablet can do a lot of different things. The ability to look up a definition or Google an obscure reference is a great thing — but searching is a different cognitive function from being immersed in a book. All of that brain gear switching inevitably takes its toll on our focus on the boo itself. And I think “tablet” in the above passage can just as easily be understood to mean “internet” or “social media” or “technology.”


On this topic, I’d recommend Leo Babauta (of ZenHabits fame) and his book, The Power of Less. Chapters 10 and 11 (Simple Email; Simple Internet) remind us of the virtues of disconnecting and simplifying our digital lives.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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