The Drawbacks of Innovation

It’s been 8 years since Amazon released its first Kindle, ushering in a new era of publishing and pushing nostalgic print purists everywhere into crisis mode. Since then, the rise of e-books and e-readers have had colossal impacts for the publishing industry, with evidence pointing to e-books as a major factor in the bankruptcy of Border’s, according to Penguin. This is a predictable outcome, yet another example of digital disruption spelling trouble for traditional industries.

Perhaps more interesting is the effect that these new digital platforms are having on the reading population. In recent years, rapid progress in the usability and affordability of tablets and e-readers, combined with more widely available Internet access, has led to a skyrocketing in screen reading, particularly among children. In some ways, the rise of e-books has had a positive impact on readers: students can now obtain textbooks for cheaper; story-lovers are now able to access a far wider range of fiction; and there is new evidence that children actually prefer reading on screens to print.

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But multiple studies are now confirming what print purists have sensed all along, that screen reading will never be able offer the same benefits as an old-fashioned book. These disadvantages go beyond the smell and feel of dusty pages. A recent study conducted at West Chester University found that middle schoolers are far less likely to retain information read on a screen than in print.

At the core of the problem, it seems, is not the need for better technology, but simply the existence of such powerful technology. Interactive interfaces, flashy gimmicks, and the capacity to leave the text to surf the web, all contribute to a trend toward distraction among e-book readers. And distraction is not the only side effect of our tablet environment. A recent Harvard study found that taking an e-book to bed could lessen the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone necessary to fall asleep quickly and experience a deep, healthy sleep.

In our perpetually plugged-in society, the prevalence of e-books and e-readers seems like a natural progression. An entire generation is currently growing up with screen reading as the default method of consuming information, and it’s hard to fathom a shift back to the days of print supremacy. It’s crucial though, that the benefits of screen reading be weighed against the disadvantages, lest the joys of reading become yet another casualty of digital disruption.

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