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COMMENTARY: Hey digital addicts: Put down the devices from time to time

There’s nothing that digital addicts hate more than being told they need to pay closer attention to real life.

In a recent screed titled “It Would Be Great if Celebrities Could Stop Talking About the Joys of ‘Unplugging,’ ” Slate blogger Heather Schwedel complained that comedian Aziz Ansari’s declaration of independence from the internet in a GQ interview amounts to a form of snobbery.

The smugness she imagines coming from those who choose to wean themselves off electronic devices is along the lines of: “Oh, you think you’re better than me? You think you’re better than looking at memes and double-tapping your friends’ pictures of dessert?”

To be fair, Ansari has been writing and performing about the miscommunication, anxiety and brain drain that result from being tied to a phone at all hours. And his GQ interview was not braggy and it spurred several pro and con quit-the-internet think pieces because he made this important point about paper’s capacity to improve focus: “I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the internet and not remembering anything.”

It’s not exactly a provocative stance.

Years of research have suggested various differences in reading online versus in print, many of which have come down on the side of paper for better comprehension when engaging in “close reading,” i.e., detailed critical analysis of a text.

Indeed, a recent survey of 25 years of some 800 studies on the subject has concluded that at very early ages — and when reading light material, superficially — the format doesn’t matter much.

But when it’s necessary to go deeper than merely familiarizing yourself with the main points of a text, particularly one that is lengthy, paper may be better. This is because of the brain’s ability to anchor information in the physical locations of concepts on a printed page that a hand manipulates as the eye processes the words.

This hand-eye connection is important — many studies have credited the physical act of writing by hand with more thoroughly imprinting information in the mind by activating regions of the brain related to retention and goal achievement.

To this point, research published in the February 2017 issue of the Economics of Education Review found that students at the United States Military Academy who were prohibited from using internet-enabled devices for note-taking during class were likelier to score higher on their final exams than those free to use tablets and laptops.

In their discussion of the pros and cons of making technology available to 21st-century students, the researchers cited this little-discussed fact: “In K-12 schools, where students do not typically take lecture notes, a growing body of research has found no positive impact (on student achievement) of expanded computer or internet access.”

In other words, unless you are being meticulous in the specific use of a tool that can be used for learning, you risk having the tool become a distraction.

It’s plainly easier and faster to take dictation on a laptop — and check your social media feeds while there’s a lull — than to concentrate fully on information that is being presented and then synthesize a summary in your own words via paper and pen.

But who cares how efficient an action is when it’s not helping you achieve your goals?

It is possible that the difficulties of our modern lives — and the politics, rancor and fake Instagram perfection that feed our daily media diets — are soothed by the dopamine hit that our brains get from checking to see if new messages or crazy headlines have arrived.

But though our electronic companions may ease us through chaotic lives, they also distract us from the difficult tasks at hand, many of which are well worth the opportunity cost of one more quick check of Twitter or a newsfeed.

Digital addicts, take heart: You don’t need to quit the internet to benefit greatly from more time away from your devices. Just try it for a few minutes a day and see how it goes. In fact, as soon as you finish reading this column, treat yourself to some silence.

Contact Esther Cepeda at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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