How Smartphone Lowers Your Reading Comprehension and How You Can Fix That

Is people's ability to comprehend information going backwards in a society that is increasingly encouraging people to abandon reading printed media.
smartphone reading

Most communication these days is done by reading a message or an email on a smartphone.  How often have you sent an office memo email or a circular to family and friends and found that people haven’t comprehended the meaning of it properly? It seems from this latest research if you want your written communication to be understood more clearly, people need to read it on paper.

If you are looking to carry out an interesting bet, then here is an idea for you to try for your next event quiz.  Challenge one group of people to read a novel book and another group of people to read the same novel through their smartphone device.  Then quiz them afterward on the contents and see which group gets the best results. 

A researcher and their team have determined that reading via smartphone stifles people’s ability to comprehend information.  There could be many reasons for that.  Some people are susceptible to headaches and eye strain when using electronic devices as well as this further research suggests people who use devices have poorer reading comprehension.

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It comes down to two factors.  The latest study by Motoyasu Honma and their team has proven devices affect the visual environment and patterns of respiration.  These two factors can alter brain function and impact cognitive ability.

Honma’s interest in this study began when they noticed a person who tended to sigh louder than other people while they worked.  A previous study revealed to Honma that sighing can be rather annoying socially, but it can improve cognitive ability. Honma thinks that this worker may have subconsciously been sighing to improve their work.

Homna decided to create a study using 34 students at a Japanese university.  Each student was required to participate in two trials. 


During the trials, participants were required to wear a mask around the mouth and nose and a Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) headbands.  These devices measured respiration patterns and prefrontal cortex activity.

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NIRS head device by Walej under CC BY-SA 4.0

One trial required the students to read a text on paper; the other trial required that the students read a text by the same author on a smartphone. No student read the same piece of text twice.

After reading, the students completed a comprehension test that included ten questions related to the content of the text.

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Reading test (S smartphone, P paper, A novel A, B novel B.) by Motoyasu Honma under CC BY 4.0

Regardless of which author the student read, their results were always better when they had read text on paper rather than on a smartphone.  It can be determined from this study that electronic devices stifle comprehension.

Two key findings

The study was able to demonstrate that prefrontal brain activity increases during reading.  Increased prefrontal brain activity happens whether a participant is reading from a paper text or a smartphone device; however, when reading from a smartphone device, a participant’s prefrontal brain activity is a lot more active. This isn’t the only determining factor that increases or decreases reading comprehension.

Increased reading comprehension occurs when people read from the paper text, this is maybe because they sigh more.  Honma discovered through analyzing respiratory activity participants sigh more when reading on paper compared to when they read on a smartphone device. For purposes of this study, a sigh is defined as breaths in a session that are twice the depth of other breaths.


Lower reading comprehension occurs when people read from a smartphone, they sigh less. Furthermore, people using smartphone devices had much more activity in their prefrontal cortex.

Firstly, these findings can be interpreted to suggest that the increased cognitive load on the brain from using a smartphone can stifle reading comprehension. Secondly, if you sigh more during reading, it can help your brain think.

The current takeaway from this research suggests that people who use smartphone devices a lot would benefit from practicing deep conscious breathing to positively improve cognitive function.


More research needed

Before industries take these findings seriously and we begin chopping down more trees to create a paper for people to read, it is important to understand that potentially a participant’s familiarity with digital devices and their age might have affected the results.

The students used for this research were all around 20 years old. Even though they can be considered digitally savvy, they probably only started using devices when they started middle or high school.

In emerging generations, there will be people that have been less exposed to paper text and will have used digital technology more from infancy.  The researcher wonders to what extent the human brain will adapt to the digital environment.  The advice for the rest of us is to remember to take regular deep breaths while we have a good long read on our phones.


The complete study can be read here.