By Stephen Smoot
In the 1980s, Barry Bingham Jr had a revelation. One day, he was working on his personal computer and saw a vision clear as day. He foresaw that the world would eventually get its news from computer screens and that would overturn the primacy of print newspapers.
Bingham was not just anyone. He represented the third generation of his family handling the helm of one of the nation’s more respected newspapers at the time, the Louisville Courier-Journal. Once the scales fell from his eyes, he endeavored to distribute his digital gospel to anyone who would listen.
Always an eccentric, Bingham’s family and staff found his obsession insane and he was ushered out of a leadership role – only 10 years before the entire industry started to succumb to what he prophesied.
Fast forward to the 2020s, screens everywhere have replaced tangible print as the primary go to for learning – much to the detriment of the entire process of transforming information into knowledge, then wisdom.
Schools have accelerated the process, handing out tablets and relying more on screen delivery. Students look at screens or watch videos more and pick up a book almost never. Parents read to their kids less from books and more often hand them a tablet or put on a video.
Studies consistently show that using screens, whether for reading or videos, fails to even come close to matching the power of a book to reach and shape a mind even down to the very processes of building knowledge.
In some ways, the lack of patience among younger people to read amounts to functional illiteracy. They can understand the words, but they will usually not devote the time necessary to truly read for deeper understanding and comprehension of more complex concepts.
Last spring, Govtech.com (I appreciate the irony here) published an article about some of the findings. According to neuroscientist and digital reading expert Maryanne Wolf, although research into the question continues “our understanding is that print advantages slower, deeper processes in the reading brain. You can use a screen to complement, to teach certain skills, but you don’t want a child to learn to read with a screen.
A study published in Acta Paediatrica that examined a sampling of private school students in Ohio showed even more dramatic conclusions. Researchers stated that “the children underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that assessed their resting state connectivity between the left visual word form area, as the seed area, and other brain regions.” They gathered information about whether each child learned primarily from print books or digital devices.
Children who learned to read with print books alongside adults and who used print books primarily growing up had “higher functional connectivity” at the early adolescent stage, ages eight through 12.
“In contrast,” the article stated, “screen time was related to lower connectivity between the seed area and regions related to language and cognitive control.”
In other words, actual books help to build a superior foundation for better learning, deeper understanding, and, most importantly, the development of wisdom than use of computer, phone, or tablet screens. They also develop discipline and focus that leads to deeper comprehension of complex issues.
One could speculate that 5,000 years of using tangible media to access information hard wired the human brain to learn in that fashion. Or it could be that screen reading is inherently distracting and prevents full engagement of the brain on a topic.
Correlation on its own should never be seen as causation. One does, however, see a marked decline in the type of in depth understanding necessary to competently evaluate the world as the 21st century grinds on. Last May, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 13 percent of eighth graders had a proficient knowledge of history and 22 percent had a basic grasp of civics.
History and civics also require more than a cursory treatment to develop a usable base of knowledge, much less understanding. Though not mentioned, one could speculate that the level of knowledge of economics was even worse. These subjects are vital to understanding who Americans are, where the nation has come from, and where it’s going.
One simply cannot understand the issues underlying any of these subjects in any real depth from short articles or videos. Only books can carry that load. Imagine using a pickup truck instead of a train or large trucks as the primary delivery vehicle for coal from a mine to its customers
In such an environment, it becomes easy to grasp why young people have developed so many negative and absurdly wrong ideas about America and the West.
Education policy makers and parents also need to pay attention to the emerging results of the screen experiment. Computers and tablets using visually exciting whiz bang programming in schools make great headlines and have the appearance of progress, but they may actually be the instruments of regress both individually and collectively, not just in the United States, but in the entire industrialized world.