Why Tablets Trump Books For Older Eyes

The elderly can be extremely resistant when it comes to adopting new technology, especially if it supplants something as tried-and-trusted as a book. Subsequently, e-readers and tablets are products to be feared and distrusted; just like broadband internet, car accelerator pedals and kids loitering on lawns (er, we might be generalising a tad here.)

Tablet picture from Shutterstock

However, it would seem these rheumy-eyed traditionalists would be better off embracing their inner Gen-Y and going digital. A new study by the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany has found tablet and e-reader displays require considerably less effort to read than ink-on-paper for older eyes.

The researchers monitored the neural effort required to process information on tablets, e-readers and paper by comparing the visual fixation duration and EEG measures of brain activity for each device.

The study compared an iPad 2 tablet, a Kindle 3 e-reader and 40cm sheets of paper. Font sizes, line spacing and page layouts were identical for all three devices.

Despite stating a strong preference for books, the elderly participants (60-77) found it easier to read the Kindle and iPad. By contrast, the printed page required the highest amount of cognitive processing.

"The present findings suggest that digital media may provide advantageous reading conditions under certain circumstances, notably when they provide improved discriminability for older readers," the paper noted.

Interestingly, subjects between the ages of 21 and 34 showed little disparity between the three reading devices, which suggests this benefit of digital displays is exclusive to senior citizens.

The report concludes that this is likely due to better text discrimination on digital displays, which benefits weaker eyesight. The preference for paper, meanwhile, is dismissed as a purely subjective "cultural phenomenon".

We feel it's worth noting that the research team opted to use two top-of-the-range digital devices, which may have skewed the results somewhat. Similarly, most people aren't used to reading 40cm sheets of paper, which lack the instant familiarity of a book. The study didn't take important factors like sunlight into account either (instead, testing was conducted in a "brightly illuminated" room).

Nevertheless, the results are good news for oldies: the next time a 20-something hipster whips out their iPad, you can confidently claim your eyes are better suited to the device.

We'd like to hear what our readers think of this study; particularly those who are in their 'autumn years'. Do you find digital displays easier to read? Or does nothing beat pristine pages of paper? Let us know in the comments section below.

[Concurrent EEG-Eyetracking Evidence from the Reading of Books and Digital Media [PLOS ONE Open Access Journal]

Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


Comments

    Font sizes, line spacing and page layouts were identical for all three devices.

    I understand that they had to control these variables for the sake of a valid study, however regardless of whether reading off a digital screen is inherently easier for older people than paper, I would think that a tablet/e-reader's ability to increase font size and spacing would be far more advantageous to older readers than the medium of the text itself.

    We’d like to hear what our readers think of this study; particularly those who are in their ‘autumn years
    You don't have to be in your autumn years to benefit from e-readers, mid-lifers are the first to suffer the effects of eye age issues. I have a rather decent library of books but I far prefer my Kobo Glo to a paper page these days. Even though I still need my reading glasses, I can adjust the font, font size and spacing on my E-Reader. I tend to still buy the paperback though so I can add it to my library.

    I maybe not into my Autumn Years but I'd certainly say it was late Summer (I'm 65).

    I use a tablet (ASUS Transformer) and reckon it beats paper hands down. What else can hold a complete library of favourite books and magazines that are accessible at any time, even at midnight when SWMBO would complain if I turned the bedside light on. Battery life has never been an issue.

    Also, you can, as mentioned previously, adjust font size and lighting conditions to suit as required. What's not to like?

    I still belong to my local library but will take out a downloadable version of a book in preference if it's available.

    I'm in the winter of my years and agree absolutely that tablets are easier on the eyes. Trouble is, I always forget where I put the wretched thing.

    Autumn years!? Bah, get off my lawn, I'm north of 50 not picking plots at the cemetery.

    Eyesight though does decrease to the point that reading the small print on the back of any product is impossible - even with glasses. You know one day manufacturers are going to realise this and make senior friendly labels, especially the ingredients and cooking instructions for food. Impossible to read, just impossible.

    And don't get me started on the labels on medicines. You would think that the drug companies would know that older people use more medicine and older people have bad eye sight. And adjust their freaking labels and consumer guides to suit.

    It's simple. Tablets > books if your eyesight is not up to scratch any more. Right through to my 40s I used to read fanatically but as my vision went I became unable to read. Such a sad facility to lose. I tried audiobooks but the imagination wasn't fired as actually seeing those words on paper.

    2 christmases ago my younger sister (also north of 50) got an E-Ink reader and it was wonderful. Putting the font up to about the equivelant of a youngster using 18 point text made such a difference.

    I was able to read again. After so many years I was right back into it with great enjoyment.

    Not long after I got my first Android tablet and found it far better than the E-Ink reader, then upgrading to a smaller 7" Nexus7 to get the book factor back was wonderful.

    The Nexus 7 is wonderful. My own mother (North of 90) also uses one to read.

    Tech devices are even worse than food labels. I had to call support for a friend's router - despite the huge amount of space on the device - all the product identification is on a tiny wee label on the bottom in ridiculously small text. We had to find a magnifying glass to read the model number.

      @memeweaver and others wirh the 'fine print' problem:
      I've found an easier way to solve this. I take a photo using my phone or a point-and-shoot camera, then enlarge it on the device's screen. Has worked every time I've been stuck recently.

        That was how I discovered that my iPhone camera couldn't focus up close. Useless for QR codes too

    I'm sorry but was anyone else struck by the mention that this study was undertaken at a university named in honour of a man who developed the very technology that is now being threatened by the emergence of e-readers and tablets?

Join the discussion!