Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How to develop and maintain reading habits in the digital era

As readers navigate this digital chapter, it is essential to critically examine the impact of technology on the depth, diversity, and immersive qualities of reading experiences

Published: Dec 27, 2023 01:45:02 PM IST
Updated: Dec 27, 2023 01:47:32 PM IST

How to develop and maintain reading habits in the digital eraImage: Shutterstock

The advent of the digital era has ushered in a transformative shift in reading habits, reshaping how individuals consume information, connect socially through reading, and engage with various forms of literature. Examining global data sheds light on the multifaceted nature of reading habits in this digital landscape, encompassing utilitarian, social, personal, informative, escapist, literary, and cognitive reading.

Utilitarian reading

Characterised by the pursuit of practical information, useful reading has witnessed a surge in the digital age. With abundant online resources, people globally turn to digital platforms for quick answers, tutorials, and guides. From troubleshooting household appliances to mastering new skills, the digital era has made utilitarian reading more accessible and efficient. However, if our quest for knowledge ends with our utilitarian reading, we might be unable to enhance our intellectual curiosity and improve our social intelligence. Furthermore, there might come a moment when we feel dejected and are not interested in socialising, and this is when escapist reading often rescues us. Nonetheless, we must resort to literary and cognitive reading to protect our self-esteem and enhance our self-actualisation.

Social reading

This has become a prevalent phenomenon, fuelled by the rise of social media platforms and online book communities. Global data reflects the significant impact of platforms like Goodreads, where readers share their thoughts and recommendations and engage in literary discussions. The digital era has transformed reading from a solitary activity into a communal experience, connecting readers worldwide. In December 2007, the site had 650,000 members and 10,000,000 books. The site reported 10 million members and 20 million monthly visits by July 2012. On March 28, 2013, Amazon acquired Goodreads, and by July 23, 2013, Goodreads had grown to 20 million members. The site had 90 million members as of July 2019, and its user base is growing steadily. The top four countries in the Goodreads are the US (58.85 million, i.e., 35.1 percent), India (26.14 million, i.e., 15.59 percent), the UK (8.7 million, i.e., 5.19 percent), and Canada (8.35 million, i.e., 4.98 percent). While these stats are somewhat encouraging, we need to be concerned about other forms of reading that demand undivided long-duration attention since our attention span has drastically reduced in the digital era. In an article published on May 30, 2023, CNN reports, "In 2004, we measured the average attention on a screen to be 2½ minutes," Mark said. "Some years later, we found attention spans to be about 75 seconds. Now we find people can only pay attention to one screen for an average of 47 seconds." Since escapist, literary, and cognitive reading require readers to focus long to assimilate critical and creative discourse, ever-decreasing attention span should be our primary concern.

Also read: Forbes India Rewind 2023: Best books we read this year

Personal reading

Individual preferences and interests drive personal reading and have seen positive and negative effects in the digital age. On the one hand, personalised recommendations and digital libraries cater to diverse tastes, making it easier for readers to explore a wide range of genres. On the other hand, the constant influx of digital content competes for attention, potentially diluting the depth of personal reading experiences.

Informative reading

Informative reading, an essential aspect of acquiring knowledge, has undergone a paradigm shift with the digital revolution. Online articles, news websites, and educational platforms have become primary sources of information. However, the challenge lies in distinguishing reliable sources from misinformation, emphasising the need for digital literacy in evaluating online content.

Escapist reading

This timeless refuge for those seeking a break from reality has found new avenues in the digital era. E-books, audiobooks, and immersive storytelling apps offer readers diverse and accessible means of escape. However, the global data indicates a surge in digital content consumption for entertainment and relaxation. Thus, many of us who used to resort to escapist reading are now lured by the reels, feeds, and other audio-visual content on YouTube and other OTT platforms. One may ask—what is wrong with my consumption of the audio-visual content? Ultimately, the creative and critical written discourse is now transformed into more appealing audio-visual content for the readers. Seemingly, there are no issues with this argument. However, psychologists and cognitive scientists have discovered excessive dependence on audio-visual content adversely impacts our cognition and creativity. Once again, we need to remind ourselves that without critical and creative thinking, we may not realise our full potential, which is what self-actualisation is all about. Thus, literary and cognitive readings must be encouraged.

Also read: When it comes to boosting reading comprehension, print rules over screens

Literary reading

Literary reading, involving the exploration of novels, poetry, and literary works, has experienced both digital benefits and challenges. E-books and audiobooks provide convenience, but concerns arise about the impact of screen reading on the immersive experience of traditional print literature. The debate between digital and physical formats continues to shape literary reading habits.

Cognitive reading

Cognitive reading faces a digital paradox involving deep comprehension and critical thinking. The abundance of information online requires readers to navigate vast amounts of data, potentially affecting cognitive processes. Striking a balance between utilising digital resources for cognitive enhancement and avoiding information overload poses a challenge in the digital reading landscape.

The digital era has intricately woven a tapestry of reading habits, reflecting utilitarian, social, personal, informative, escapist, literary, and cognitive dimensions. As readers navigate this digital chapter, it is essential to critically examine the impact of technology on the depth, diversity, and immersive qualities of reading experiences. Finding a harmonious balance between the advantages and challenges of the digital landscape is pivotal for fostering a generation of readers who can harness the full potential of the written word in the digital age. The question is—how does one improve their reading skills?

Also read: Top 10 best books to read: From Stephen Schwarzman's memoir to The Essential Business Storytelling Handbook

Improving attention span and reading skills can be achieved through various methods. Here are some tips that might help:

  • Meditation: Daily meditation can increase your overall attention span. Sit in a comfortable spot and focus on taking deep breaths in and out. Try to empty your mind and think about nothing at all as you sit and relax. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes daily to exercise your attention span the way you might exercise a muscle.
  • Classical music: Calming music, like classical music, can help you focus. If you're struggling to complete a task, try turning on some classical music in the background. Keep the volume low so it's not overwhelming, and try to tune out any background noise.
  • Black tea: Black tea may have a positive effect on attention span. It contains the amino acid called L-theanine, which affects the part of the brain responsible for attention. Try replacing your coffee in the morning with a cup of black tea and see if you're more focused overall.
  • Eliminate distractions: Your phone, computer, and TV are the most obvious distractions. If you need to buckle down and pay attention for a long time, try to put your distractions away. If you need your computer to do work, consider downloading a website blocker to block specific sites until you're done. If your phone distracts you, try putting it on Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode. Sit in a room without a TV so you aren't tempted to turn it on. FocusBooster and BlockSite are two website-blocking extensions you can use if you're on your computer.
  • Focus on one task at a time: Multitasking doesn't help you get work done faster. Studies show that it can actually slow you down. When you have a few things you need to do, go in a logical order instead of trying to get them all done at once. Try making a to-do list and checking your tasks off one by one.
  • Train your mind: Develop a routine of 20 to 30 minutes of reading during your lunch break, before work or before bed. As you read, block out distractions such as phone notifications. Consider rereading a book with which you're already familiar. Or, try reading the same paragraph a few times in a row, searching for nuances or new observations. Want a way to boost your attention and focus? Neuropsychologist Kim Willment of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital suggests a single-task exercise like reading. "Read something for 30 minutes, setting a timer to go off every five minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself if your mind has wandered. If so, just refocus on what you're reading," she says. "By training your brain to monitor if your mind is wandering, you strengthen the monitoring process and the ability to maintain focus on a single task".