New Research: Millenials Prefer Paper to Screens -- But Do They Perform Better With Paper?

May 13, 2014 | Updated Jul 13, 2014

When I went back to UCLA to get a PhD in developmental psychology, I thought I would be a technological dinosaur compared to the much younger students in my cohort. But funnily enough, often I used screens more than they did -- to communicate, to read and to take notes. In classes many of them used old-fashioned paper and pen and printed out their journal articles so they could use a highlighter. This surprised me, because when I speak to parents, I often hear that they are scared that this generation of students is losing out because they are learning so much more on screens.

These fears are echoed in the press. For example, the Washington Post wrote about how reading is taking a hit from online scanning and skimming. In the class I now teach to college seniors, the students themselves echoed this fear, telling me that they believe that their reading comprehension suffers when they read on a tablet.

So are these students right? Is paper superior to screen for learning, writing and comprehension? We recently examined this question in a study completed at the Children's Digital Media Center@LA. In a series of two studies, we asked a several questions:

1. First, what do students say they prefer -- paper or computer?
2. Second, do they perform better in terms of reading comprehension on paper versus screen?
3. And three, would reading articles in either medium improve the quality and efficiency for a task to write an essay which required critical thinking?

Funnily enough, millenials overwhelmingly told us they prefer paper. 60 out of 66 students preferred paper to computer when studying. We thought that this generation of students may have adapted to this new technology, but nearly everyone expressed a preference for paper, usually telling us they felt they performed better when reading on paper rather than a screen.

And indeed we ourselves believed paper was superior, but as scientists we wanted to test this intuitive feeling many of us seem to share. First we measured reading comprehension after reading material on paper, computers and tablets. We found NO DIFFERENCE in comprehension as a function of medium, even when they were allowed to multitask. But multitasking did make them take longer to read.

For our last question, surprisingly, even though these students preferred reading on paper, when push came to shove, the quality of their essay, and the time taken to complete the assignment, WAS THE SAME whether source materials were provided on paper versus screen. But once the students were allowed to access the Internet and to accordingly multitask, their scores were much higher in the computer only condition. While seeing the source materials on paper neither helped nor hindered their essays relative to the other conditions, one use of paper did help; when students took notes using paper and pencil, their access to the Internet no longer hampered their performance.

So what's the takeaway? Bottom line, as other research has found, it doesn't seem to make a difference whether you read on paper versus screen. But once you add in the distraction of the Internet, your work will suffer. For parents, this means what we already knew -- tell your children not to multitask when they need to focus on homework.

To read our journal article, please click here