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The paper chase


Researchers have suggested that people comprehend less when they read on a screen because screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper

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IT STILL gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when I think of opening up the mailbox at our front gate and finding an envelope with my name and address written, in ballpoint ink nogal, in the unique handwriting of a friend.

To this day, almost 30 years on, I still have these personal letters in a shoebox, and in many of these letters there is the phrase: “In your last letter …”, followed by a response to something I had written two or three weeks ago. Sometimes it would be challenging to try and remember exactly what I had written, seeing as I had no copy of the letter with me.

But it gave the brain a workout.

These days things are different. People send out ‘tons’ of instant messages almost daily, and I have found that it can become a bit overbearing to receive a daily message, especially if the message is a quote, picture message or video that has been ‘forwarded’ or even worse, ‘forwarded many times’.

Now, before I upset my friends who send me messages on a daily basis, allow me to say WHY I am so unimpressed with receiving instant messages on my device.

Since the upheaval caused by the new coronavirus our humble daily newspaper has had to migrate to a mainly online platform. This means that most of the work I do these days has me looking at a screen – sometimes all day. I am sick to death of screen time, and my eyes are not happy with me. If they had fingers they’d poke me in the eye.

Now, to look away from the screen that I work on for eight to 10 hours a day, and look at a smaller screen in my hand to read a message that has just been forwarded several times does not inspire me, it just exhausts me.

In the old days, if you wanted to send someone a ‘quick’ message you’d send a postcard. That entailed writing out a message, affixing a stamp and waiting a week or two for it to be delivered. Postcards were special because it took some effort.

It also took effort to criticise newspapers and magazines. If you didn’t like what a newspaper published, you would actually have to get some paper and furiously write out your objections and criticisms, angrily lick the postage stamp and shove it into the post box.

A week later, if you were lucky, the editor would publish your letter and you would buy several copies of that edition to distribute to friends, family and your mates at the local pub.

Oddly enough, back then these criticisms, it seems, were more valid than comments made online these days … I’ll tell you why I say this. Recently I read that researchers have suggested that people comprehend less when they read on a screen because screen-based reading is more physically and mentally taxing than reading on paper.

Here’s the kicker … I read that article online.

There are advantages to online reading; one being that there is so much information out there – current, up to date information. The downside is that people do not question whether what they read has been researched, verified and fact-checked, and they just absorb the information without filtering it.

I also read another article that claimed that reading from a screen drains more of our mental resources and makes it a little harder to remember what we read. So though we are exposed to more information when reading online, we seem to be absorbing less.

Other research suggests that whether they realise it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

Now, though I am probably biased, and come from the old school of ink on paper, my (one-sided) research indicates that if our newspapers stop publishing and move to exclusively online platforms, we may just end up with over-informed and under-comprehending masses.

And that sends a chill down my spine.