Does An Online Format Cause Reader To Skim Rather Than Fully Digest Information?

According to new research, users can't seem to focus online for reading. The eye tracking activity of the users was recorded which indicated that an online format causes the reader to skim rather than fully digest the information. The users tended to scroll through the articles and other content instead of reading it word for word.

This happens very commonly. Users land on a page, read the heading, subheadings and scan through the contents to see if they are going to find that they like. They simply pick up the information that they want to know and close the content without fully digesting it. For instance, during the exam times, college students showed more interest in getting the gist of their topic (through googling the topic) rather than fully understanding the topic online or in print. Owing to lack of time, every online reader tends to pick up selective text in the passages and read it.


If you think that readers have time to fully read the topic word by word, they don't. The user activity on the internet indicates that readers scan the page, and pick out individual words and sentences. They don't bother reading the entire passage in order to understand or study anything at all.

According to a research, 79% of the readers scanned the information rather than fully digesting the information by going through word-by-word. Less than 16% of the readers read the context word-by-word.

As a result, the web pages include highlighted words, subheadings, bullet lists to make the readers process the data. Web pages use the inverted pyramid style of writing so that the readers can easily skim through the passages without any problem. In fact, most read websites make sure that their content consists of only one idea per paragraph. This is to make sure that the readers understand the point of the content without missing out on anything.


According to various cognitive neuroscientists, humans are slowly developing digital brains which have new circuits made for skimming through the information online. This process is replacing the old circuits made for traditional deep reading. The brain adapts to people and time.

Various subjects were taken for the study to demonstrate how online formats are causing the brain to read selectively. One of the subjects, Claire Handscombe showed a commitment problem online. She clicked on various social networking sites, looked for exciting words and then grew restless to move on to next page. She claimed that she could feel that her eyes were passing over words without taking in anything of substance. When the situation dawns on her, she goes back to the page to read again and again for understanding.

Maryanne Wolf, the cognitive neuroscientist from Tufts University, claims that the superficial way of reading is affecting the in-depth processing in the brain. The brain constantly adapts. To experiment, Wolf spent a day of scrolling through emails and web content. And when she sat down in the evening to read a novel, she simply couldn't do that. She found that her brain won't slow down. It was constantly skimming through words, picking out keywords, and was organising her eye movements in order to gather information at high speed.


Researchers have discovered a clear distinction between online and print reading. They believe that print versions yield better comprehension in understanding difficult content. Before the internet was made, brain used to read in linear ways- by reading one line by line. Pictures were never meant to be a distraction. The layout itself indicated about the key information.

However, the internet is not anything like that. It is full of a gamut of information consisting of videos, hyperlinked words, interactivity etc. everywhere in the content. This makes the brain to formulate various shortcuts to deal with them. The brain tends to adopt the non-linear way of reading.

The online readers spend a lot of time pushing, touching, linking, scrolling and jumping through text. This slows down their ability to sit down with a text in hand. The online readers face a lot of trouble reading long sentences with multiple background information.


The gist of the situation at hand is that human brains are evolving and they are no longer supporting the traditional style of reading. Owing to online formats, the readers skim through the content rather than completely digesting the information word-by-word.

A research was carried in Israel which proved that comprehension and learning are better on paper over online format. Owing to the gamut of information available online, readers get distracted by the videos, links etc and are not able to fully read the text. But in print versions, the readers use the linear style of reading and attain deeper knowledge.