Do Digital Devices Affect How We Read & Write?

Device, MobileCan gadgets help to educate young people?

Many would say yes. Digital literacy is seen as a key enabler to a modern upbringing and mobile devices are being introduced at ever earlier ages. However, to others, they are potentially harmful distractions.

There are schools that frown on kids toting tablets and universities that ban laptops from lecture theatres. Many of those who eschew these devices have been swayed not by facts and research, but by opinion and experience; for example, teachers concerned that technology-addled kids lack communications skills and focus. That does not mean their views should be discounted, it means that research is very much needed.

Such studies are now under way. Although, given that mobile devices are already an integral part of our lives, the researchers are mostly playing catch-up.

Early findings suggest screens can indeed affect the ways we read and write. The real question is: does that matter?

The same researchers who have identified these effects are quick to point out they are very specific. A gripping yarn on an e-reader may be a perfect fit; a highbrow tome on a phone, maybe not. But that does not make digital reading a problem per se. And, mobile devices’ shortcomings must be weighed against their advantages: portability; economy; access to the world’s knowledge; and so on.

Much publicised worries about young brains becoming wired up differently are under researched too. Even if this does happen, it is not clear any changes are deleterious. And, in some cases, there may be simple solutions such as making children write with styluses rather than keyboards.

That is not to say we should not carefully consider how, when and why children use technology. It is probably safe to state that mobile devices are not going away any time soon, and they raise issues that go far beyond literacy. However, our approach to their use should not be in thrall to yesterday’s values.

Only when we know precisely what screens do to us will we know precisely what we should do with them.


O’Callaghan, T. (2014) The Writings on the Screen. New Scientist. Weekly, November 1-7 2014, pp.40-43.


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