Reading on digital devices doesn’t help kids’ reading comprehension, study finds

young boy reading on tablet digital devices

If your kiddo doesn’t care for paper books and prefers to read on a tablet or other device, you may want to direct them back to traditional books and magazines—at least while they’re young. A new report found that digital reading doesn’t seem to improve reading comprehension in younger students.

The review of research was published in Review of Educational Research.

Based on what we know from previous research, the authors said that if a student read about 10 hours in print, they have the ability to comprehend about 6 to 8 times more than if they read on digital devices for the same amount of time.

During elementary and middle school, there were negative relationships between leisure digital reading and comprehension, but that improved when students went into high school and onto college, when it turned positive.

What’s wrong with digital reading, you may ask? The authors think it’s because the devices offer so many other purposes. Also, the internet has introduced new types of reading, including shorter features, subpar vocabulary and lower quality content.

“In sum, for developing readers, leisure digital reading does not seem to pay off in terms of reading comprehension, at least not as much as traditional print reading does,” said Lidia Altamura, a PhD student at the University of Valencia, one of the authors. “Our findings are particularly surprising when you compare them to what we already know about the well-established positive association between reading frequency in print and text comprehension.”

“We expected that digital leisure reading for informational purposes, such as visiting Wikipedia or other educational webpages, or reading the news, would be much more positively linked to comprehension,” said Altamura. “But even that was not the case.”

The study is the first meta-analysis to evaluate the specific association between leisure reading habits on digital devices and reading comprehension.

The authors looked at 25 studies that were published between 2000 and 2022. The evidence spanned about 470,000 people from at least three dozen countries.

The researchers say their findings highlight the importance of directing younger students to read printed materials more than reading content on digital devices.

“Based on our results, we cannot just assume that all leisure reading will be beneficial for developing readers,” said Altamura. “The medium used matters.”