Digital Documents Actually Preferred by Older Readers

We always assume that the digital transformation will be lead by the youth. Or at least Mitch does.

Kevin O’Keefe came across a recent study which indicates that older readers needed less brain activity when reading on a tablet than on paper or e-Readers. The authors used EEG devices to monitor (theta band) brain activity and tracked eye movement. In fact, the older readers, aged 66-77 years, were actually able to use the tablets better than younger participants.

The point here is that the readers’ subjective preference of print over tablet was irrelevant, for all age groups. Most of the participants actually indicated an expressed preference for paper. The authors explained this as follows:

The most obvious factor that sets apart the tablet from the other two reading devices is the backlighting of the display, thus increasing the contrast between text and background. Indeed, previous eyetracking research has shown that changes in contrast modulate fixation durations. For example, Reingold and Rayner [53]found that a reduced contrast leads to longer fixation times for a critical word – amounting to an increase of first fixation times by 60 ms and of gaze duration (i.e. the sum of all fixations on the critical word before the first saccade to another word) by 120 ms. This result was replicated in a subsequent study [54], which further showed that a reduced contrast leads to a lower probability of word skipping. Thus, there is good evidence to support the relationship between contrast and reading times, thereby providing a potential explanation for differences between the tablet computer and the other two reading devices.

The reason for this effect with older readers was likely due to higher susceptibility to text discriminability, and reduced contrast sensitivity. The backlit displays of tablets actually allowed the older reader to process the text more efficiently.

The older readers generally spent nearly 3 seconds more reading paper and over 4 seconds more reading on an e-reader than they did a tablet. That means that potentially lawyers can read more and presumably read better when using a tablet instead of paper.

And when you attach a time savings and demonstrate efficiencies to decision-makers in law firms, you just might be able to convince them all that they should invest in the technology to go digital.


  1. well, they (we) read it faster but is there less comprehension? Maybe more concentration time per important word is a help, not a hindrance. I know that speed reading often depends on skipping words, but at some point one can skip too many.

    and do headaches from the refresh rate count for anything?

    sorry, you can’t sell me (or even give me) one of your tablets.

    J. Ludd

  2. Absolutely right. The critical issue is not HOW LONG readers took to read something, but whether they UNDERSTOOD and RETAINED the information ACCURATELY. In general, though, this research is interesting because it’s one of the first studies I’ve seen that suggests that “reading from a screen” may be better.

  3. In the elderly, brain activity patterns involving language processing becomes a matter of how much white matter (leukoaraiosis-“UBO (Unidentified Bright Objects) lesions”) have damaged the brain’s language network. Neuro-scientists now agree that fMRI studies have demonstrated that this is a pathological condition that is one of the differentiating factors in brain activity patterns involved in semantic task decisions. I think it would be more prudent for older lawyers to have a brain scan before you rush out and by a tablet. One of the contributing health risks to developing this altered brain state seems to be high blood pressure. I am quite sure they will link many more inflammatory conditions to the development of UBO’s in the future.

    If this study could be integrated with the studies on UBO’s we may have more definitive and helpful strategies on how to maintaining better comprehension and retention of information in the 60+ population.

  4. The only benefit that the above article attributes to the tablet for old people appears to be the higher contrast between text and background. One can achieve similar results by reading under a brighter light.(What my kids need to read by on paper and what I need are quite different.)

    I can buy a lot of 100-watt bulbs or even tri-lights for the price of a tablet, and no MRI required.

    Are there studies about eye-strain from looking at a tablet, either in addition to or in contrast with a normal computer monitor? There is considerable evidence that looking at a monitor can interfere with the ability to get to sleeep, thus advice that one should quit the monitor an hour or two before going to bed. The same advice is not given about reading books before turning off the light.

    I have no objection, of course, to young folks like Omar being brilliant using their tablets. I will compensate for growing duller (per UBO or otherwise) by making my lights brighter, and try to keep up.