Print Still Matters in a Post-COVID World
Particularly for students, the method of reading impacts comprehension!
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It has been more than two years since terms like “COVID-19” and “global pandemic” became a part of our everyday vernacular. With new variants continuing to emerge with frustrating frequency, it remains to be seen when (if ever) we’ll finally be able to put this part of human history in the rear-view mirror. COVID changed so much about our world: how we work, how we shop, how we interact with one another, and even how we learn. As a parent, this final aspect hit particularly close to home for me.
The New Normal?
My daughter is 8 years old, so I’m sure she has some hazy memories of what life was like before social distancing, face masks, and the constant need for hand sanitizer. Even so, most of her academic history has taken place under the shadow of COVID. The pandemic hit when she was in kindergarten, and the rest of that school year was cut short as everything shifted to remote learning virtually overnight in mid-March 2020. My daughter detested remote learning from the start, and I couldn’t blame her—she missed her friends, she missed her teacher, and she didn’t like being tethered to a computer just as the weather was starting to warm up. It was difficult for her to comprehend why her vibrant, interactive classroom had shrunk down to the size of a screen on our dining room table.
Summer passed in a blur of questions about what the future of education would hold, and the past two school years have certainly been a far cry from “normal.” In first grade, my daughter and her classmates were pushed into a hybrid model where they spent half the week with a computer at a remote learning facility and the other half in the classroom with their teacher (thus minimizing the number of children that were in the classroom at one time). Although this was an improvement in many respects, I never envisioned that a then 7-year-old would need to lug a laptop everywhere she went so early in her school career. Second grade brought more progress, but it was only a few months ago that my daughter was finally able to return to school without a mask, and I’ll admit that she really struggled with the transition at first. After all, the face mask had been part of her school uniform for over a year. Even now, as we attempt to return to some semblance of normal, many school-aged children are still subjected to weekly COVID tests, occasional absences of friends and teachers who have gotten sick, and a lingering uncertainty about how things will change in the future. Long story short, my second-grade daughter has yet to experience an entire school year that has not been impacted by COVID in some way.
Digital to the Extreme
Think back: How did you feel when the pandemic hit? Sure, we were all feeling uncertain and confused, but many of my friends loved it at first. They were no longer making daily treks to the office in some cases, so they suddenly had more time to pursue other interests and hobbies. Many were also saving money on gas, coffee, food, and (let’s face it) the dress code became infinitely more casual.
I realize I might be in the minority here, but I was horrified when COVID-19 stubbornly dug in its heels rather than blowing over quickly as I naively hoped that it would. I like sweatpants as much as the next person, but I couldn’t help worrying about how a sudden and immediate switch to online learning would affect my then six-year-old daughter. I was already experiencing some of my own growing pains with work, and all of those Zoom calls were really taking their toll…someone was always on mute when it was their turn to speak (or perhaps not on mute when they should have been), people were talking over one another without intending to, and it became difficult for some introverts to talk at all. Many professional adults are still learning to navigate the nuances of virtual meetings. Can you even imagine what it must have been like for teachers who were attempting to virtually corral an entire classroom’s worth of students? In my experience as a parent, I can tell you it wasn’t pretty.
Research confirms that my concerns about digital learning were not completely unfounded. According to Oman Essay, print is simply easier for humans to comprehend than digital text, stating “print reading is considered as a kind of meditation where to focus of attention is on something which is still. It is a completely different kind of impression in comparison to digital stimuli. Digital reading equals shallower processing.”
No one will argue the point that digital content is everywhere in today’s world. According to Internet Live Stats, there are nearly 2 billion websites in existence today. So digital is (in fact) all around us, but it’s important to remember that we’ve only learned how to read digital content in the past 30 years! Meanwhile, human beings have been reading print for thousands upon thousands of years, even if they were just carvings on a cave wall. Digital represents only a tiny portion of our overall reading history, so is it really a stretch to say that our minds—and those of our children—may not have caught up yet?
You don’t have to be a parent to question the effects of too much screen time. The lockdown phase of COVID forced us all into a “digital first” mentality that may be the wave of the future, but there is little question that students and professionals alike are feeling overwhelmed by digital stimuli. Consider the following statistics:
- Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index revealed that the average Teams user saw a 252% increase in their weekly meeting time and a 153% rise in the number of weekly meetings between February 2020 and March 2022.
- According to the Mayo Clinic, too much screen time in children (2+ hours per day) can be linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems, and impaired academic performance.
- A gemelius blog on the future of work asserts that digital overload is a significant contributor of workplace stress. In some cases, nearly half of the working day is unproductive as a result.
- According to Meier Clinics, the sudden shift to remote learning in early 2020 increased anxiety, depression, social isolation, insecurities, loneliness, and feelings of helplessness/hopelessness among students of all ages.
Taking a Step Back
During the lockdown phase of COVID when my daughter’s in-person learning experience all but stopped, her teacher provided us with access to a vast online library populated with countless children’s e-books. Although I certainly appreciated the intent, I stubbornly took my daughter (along with face masks and loads of hand sanitizer) to our local library, which was fortunately still open with reduced hours during the height of the pandemic. I then checked out the very same books that her teacher recommended (albeit in printed form). That was my small way of defying the digital push while also curbing my daughter’s screen time a bit.
These days, pretty much any book is available in digital form. I’d be hard-pressed to find a physical book that didn’t have an electronic equivalent but, somehow, the physical book experience is altogether different. Rather than mindlessly scrolling through digital text, you must turn an actual page with your fingers. It’s easier to see how far you are in the book and how far you’ve got to read based on the feel of the pages in your hands. In addition, numerous studies have confirmed that physical print performs better than digital in the areas of cognitive load (i.e., ease of understanding), motivation/persuasiveness, and attention span. Research aside, though, I’ve been able to see a difference in my own child’s engagement when she’s interacting with a physical book.
Keypoint Intelligence’s Opinion
Don’t get me wrong, none of what I say here is meant to undermine the importance of digital technology. It’s wonderful that we’re living during a time where digital communication is an option, and that we did have electronic methods of coping when the pandemic took the world by storm. At the same time, however, there might be cases where it’s simply too much of a good thing. This is certainly evidenced by the number of adults and children who experienced (or continue to experience) digital fatigue and might therefore choose to pick up a hard copy textbook or paperback novel to “unplug” from all the digital noise.
Many families started new rituals during COVID, and mine is certainly no exception. Given my line of work, it’s not surprising that I’ve got a natural affinity for print on paper, but this has taken on a life of its own over the past few years. Every night at about 7:30 or so, I turn off the TV and make my husband put away his phone…which he grudgingly does. I then spend the next half hour or so reading a physical book to my daughter. Granted, she could easily read these books herself given her age, but that’s hardly the point. This has become a way for us to unwind before bed and reconnect as a family, and I can see my daughter engage with physical books in a way that she never does with digital books.
Maybe there’s just something about picking up a book in your hand and turning the pages rather than swiping or scrolling at a screen, but I truly believe that the simple act of consuming content in print improves comprehension…and the research is on my side!