Are Tablets Killing Our Attention Span for Books?

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. Keep in mind, Richtel won a Pulitzer for his series about driving while texting, so he knows what he's talking about, though it's debatable whether checking your Facebook newsfeed while reading The Hunger Games is quite on the same level of society-harming distractions. Unless, of course, you're behind the wheel.

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Nevertheless, cue the scary music from your couch, or wherever you read: "Can you concentrate on Flaubert when Facebook is only a swipe away, or give your true devotion to Mr. Darcy while Twitter beckons? People who read e-books on tablets like the iPad are realizing that while a book in print or on a black-and-white Kindle is straightforward and immersive, a tablet offers a menu of distractions that can fragment the reading experience, or stop it in its tracks." Here are some of the things that may interrupt you while you attempt to read on your tablet:

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  • Email is so easy to access.

  • You can look up words or facts on Google. For instance: "Why am I so easily distracted?"

  • You might get bored, and check your Twitter feed. Or decide to watch the movie of the book instead. Or check Facebook. Or play Angry Birds. Or shop online. Or do anything besides looking at the words of the book on the screen in front of you. 

  • You might find out that, actually, you don't even want to read

Reading is a challenge! But it is very easy to speak in dramatic terms about how hard it is to read on tablets (who exactly is the child in Myers' scenario?):

“It’s like trying to cook when there are little children around,” said David Myers, 53, a systems administrator in Atlanta, who got a Kindle Fire tablet in December. “A child might do something silly and you’ve got to stop cooking and fix the problem and then return to cooking.”

“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.”

“I’ve tried to sit down and read it in Starbucks or the apartment, but I end up on Facebook or Googling something she said, and then the next thing you know I’ve been surfing for 25 minutes,” Ms. Kutz said.

The upside to all of this is that even though we may not be able to read anything longer that 140 characters in the future without 17 breaks to check email and provide a status update on our Facebook pages and Twitter accounts -- HALFWAY THRU BOOK NOW! WHAT R U DOING? -- we will have any number of perfectly reasonable excuses for why that's the case. The best thing about technology, after all, is the fact that we can blame everything on technology. 

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Image via Shutterstock by MishAl.