Wouldn’t you rather read this on paper instead of on a screen?

Business report on paper and on screen

Over the past couple of weeks, politicians in the UK have been suggesting that smartphones should be banned for children. And if that can’t happen, they want access to social media switched off for youngsters.

British politicians are not alone. There have been similar calls in the USA, Spain, France, and China. People are realising the harmful impact of the “always on” echo-chamber of the smartphone. The Surgeon General in the USA has declared the use of social media on smartphones a potential health hazard for children.

It’s inevitable that before too long, limitations will be placed on the use of smartphones by children, much like the laws that forbid alcohol consumption by under-18s in the UK, except in specific circumstances. My favourite exception in the law covers Northern Ireland, where children over the age of five can drink alcohol as long as it’s solely for “medicinal purposes”.

But I digress. Legislation for smartphone and social media use by children is bound to arise before long, even if it ends up having some rather whacky exceptional circumstances.

However, I would back the legislation for another reason that has nothing to do with the potential mental health harm. I want children to stop reading things on their phone and go back to engaging with printed materials. Indeed, I want adults to do this too.

Yesterday, one of my lecturer colleagues asked about banning mobile phones in class. Some students work on their laptops during tutorials, a few use tablet devices, several print things out and work with pen and paper. Others, though, sit with their phones in their hands, tapping away with their thumbs. Indeed, I have known students write 3,000 word assignments on their phones.

The reason the lecturer wanted to ban phone usage was because it was distracting other students. When a student is using pen and paper or a laptop, they are not checking social media or playing games. But with a phone, a student can do that easily. Even though they may be typing notes, to everyone around them it looks like they are not engaging, even if they are doing so.

Of course, we cannot ban students from using their preferred studying device. But as the students printing things out will tell them, they miss so much by using their phone. Indeed, for the class my colleague had been tutoring, the students using their phones could not see the details in the charts and graphs. Those with a laptop and those who printed out the lecture notes had no such issue.

I suspect you are nodding in agreement here, thinking students must be a little daft, thinking they can effectively study on a phone. But I need you to be honest with yourself. Are you reading this on a screen, or have you printed it out? Aha…got you…! Indeed, I know from the engagement data for my newsletter that one in five of you will now be reading this on a phone.

It isn’t good for you to do that. Australian researchers have just published a study which shows that when we read on screen, we resort to “shallow or superficial text processing”. Only when we print things out to read do we engage in more depth and use metacognition processes, which help us figure out whether we are understanding what we are reading.

But here is the problem. We are faced with so much information that we have to read quickly, we’d be spending half the day in the print room downloading and printing what we need. Yet we all know that we do not fully engage with material that is on screen. Indeed, I suspect you see reports where you notice things that make you question whether anyone has actually read the material. They have, but did not engage fully enough because they were reading it on screen. Hence, mistakes get through, as does incorrect information. But it is worse than this according to the Australian research. Reading on screen means we are not thinking things through as well as we do when we see the same material in print.

So, if children, or university students, spend their life using smartphones or reading everything on screen, it is not just their mental health that suffers, but their ability to think. Hence, a smartphone ban for children would have a double impact – improvements in mental health and cognitive ability. If it is good for children, it’s probably good for us too. I often print things out at work to read and engage with them more clearly.

Meanwhile, people in the world of marketing may be seeing the light. After a couple of years of reducing spending on direct mail, in 2024 they are planning to increase their budgets on these printed materials. Firms are increasingly confident that printed materials sent by direct mail are excellent methods of increasing sales, as well as creating brand awareness. After decades of marketers going on and on and on about the value of digital marketing, it looks like they have come to the realisation that print has substantial benefits.

The answer to their inevitable question as to why this may be the case is that when potential customers read something in print, they engage with it more, understand it better, and think about it more deeply. We only engage superficially with digital marketing materials it seems.

Print is clearly working for marketers. We now know from the Australian researchers that it works better for our brains too. And that means if children are banned from using smartphones, they’ll have to engage with more print, which will improve their thinking and learning. The research shows we remember more when we read it from paper than from a screen. So don’t throw away that inkjet just yet. And if you would like to engage more fully with this newsletter, just go ahead and press Ctrl-P.

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