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]

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