Reading and concentration: "We cannot rely on willpower when faced with algorithms"

April 22, 2023

Students at the University of Oslo are joining forces against screens to regain their concentration and improve their reading. Consequences for mental health: The deep reading experiment at the University of Oslo doesn't just concern student's ability to read long texts. Photo: Erik Engblad / UiOOur lack of concentration has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. Photo: Erik Engblad / UiOHocus focusIn the first session, the students had access to their mobile phones and computers. “Perhaps sitting and reading in this way is a kind of performance-enhancing factor in itself?”Suprisingly concentrated: Giulio Panettiere after first round of deep reading.

Students at the University of Oslo are joining forces against screens to regain their concentration and improve their reading.

Consequences for mental health: The deep reading experiment at the University of Oslo doesn't just concern student's ability to read long texts. Concentration and screen use does also affect the mental health. Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Our lack of concentration has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus has recently been published in Norwegian, at the same time as the debate about children and young people’s screen use in schools has filled the newspaper columns. The latest PISA survey shows that pupils in Norwegian schools are among the worst performers when it comes to reading in their spare time. Before Christmas, the Swedish Minister of Education launched the largest investment in textbooks in modern times.

But what about University of Oslo students’ ability to concentrate?

This is something that Ståle Wig, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo, and Anne Mangen, a reading researcher at the University of Stavanger, want to find out about.  With support from seed funds provided by EILIN - Eilerts Network for Teaching and Learning at the Faculty of Social Sciences, they recently conducted an experiment where, over two sessions, a group of students had to sit quietly in a room and read for five hours, equipped with heart rate monitors and motion sensors.

“It is especially the reading of individual texts over a long period of time that is affected in our modern lives, both academic and literary reading”, says Mangen.

“Our reading is fragmented because we often read digitally. The aim of this experiment was to investigate what would happen if we went in the opposite direction.”

More conscious of technology: Ståle Wig and Anne Mangen wants to create a more conscious relationship in the students with the technology they surround themselves with. Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Hocus focus

In the first session, the students had access to their mobile phones and computers. In the second session, all technology had to be left at the door.

Giulio Panettiere is a student on the Master’s programme in Social Anthropology, and was one of the participants. He usually finds it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time, especially when he is in the vicinity of other students.

“For me, other people are usually the biggest distraction in the reading room, I like to follow what the others are doing”, says Panettiere.

However, he admits that mobile phones are also a distraction.

“Not necessarily because there is so much going on on my phone, but because I always feel the need to check if there is anything going on.”

The master’s student says that he got more done during the two sessions of deep reading than he had expected beforehand.

“I don’t really know why, but I was able to concentrate really well. Even when I had my mobile and computer available”, he says.

“Perhaps sitting and reading in this way is a kind of performance-enhancing factor in itself?”

Suprisingly concentrated: Giulio Panettiere after first round of deep reading. Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Liberating restrictions

In the coming months, Anne Mangen and Ståle Wig, together with literary researcher Frank Hakemulder from Utrecht University, will analyse the quantitative data from the heart rate monitors and video recordings, and compare this with qualitative focus group interviews and data from surveys.

However, Ståle Wig can already reveal a clear pattern: A majority of the students in the focus groups reports that it primarily feels good to have options taken away.

“In this experiment, students have not been able to decide where to be, who to be with, or how long to sit and read. We have given them restrictions. The remarkable thing is that the restrictions are not perceived as coercion, but as liberation”, he says.

“You get more of a sense of agency when you remove some choices. Perhaps many students today are a little overwhelmed by all the choices?”

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Messi and Abyssinan cats

The major variables in the deep reading experiment are whether the students have a mobile phone with them and whether they read on a screen. Ståle Wig has the impression that the collective aspect is a factor that is just as crucial.

“I wonder if a lot of the concentration in these sessions occurs because people are sitting together in a group”, says the social anthropologist.

Wig is of the opinion that sitting still for five hours and reading is something rather intense and a bit difficult, but when the students do it together, they get a shared experience of mastery. What’s more, they keep an eye on each other, keeping each other in check.

“You only have so much willpower. When that disappears, you are left helpless. Take myself, for example. When exposed to videos of Messi dribbling the ball about, I haven’t got a chance. Facebook knows that this is my weakest point: To see Messi dribbling a football”, says Wig.

“My weak point is videos of Abyssinian cats”, Mangen adds.

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Willpower versus algorithms

The researchers point out that many students have a disciplined relationship with technology. They turn their mobile phones to black and white mode, turn off push notifications and rig themselves up with strict control mechanisms.

“Nevertheless, it is unrealistic that they will be able to hold their ground against some of the largest companies in the world that mobilise the best scientists and designers, equipped with almost unlimited means, solely to steal our attention”, says Wig.

His point is that we cannot rely on willpower when faced with algorithms.

“That is why I think more regulations are needed from the authorities. In addition, students must join forces, just like humans have always done throughout history, and find support in each other.

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Serious consequences for mental health

According to Anne Mangen and Ståle Wig, the deep reading experiment doesn’t just deal with students’ ability to read long texts. Concentration and screen use can also have a direct connection to mental health.

The latest Ungdata survey shows that children and young people are spending more and more time looking at screens. At the same time, anxiety and depression are increasing in the same group.

“I believe we think concentration has become difficult because so much of our reading is funnelled onto digital surfaces, which inherently keep us busy with other things than sitting here and now and focusing on a text where nothing moves”, Mangen says.

“Perhaps that is why this topic affects so many people, because we get a feeling of: Is this really that good for us?”

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

Not a matter of conservatism

The reading researcher believes it is healthy for us to dwell on something over a long period of time. Reading isn’t just about the time you have your eyes fixed on a text. According to Mangen, when we read, we often look out into space, process things, let our minds wander.

“These spaces prove to be very important for us. However, spaces don’t fare very well on a smartphone. We simply scroll past them, fill them up. Doing this hinders creativity, empathy and the experience of presence over time. Just to name a few”, she says.

Mangen doesn’t agree with the argument that the scepticism about screen use has only to do with the fact that her generation has grown up with paper books.

“We find the same results in data on pupils all the way down to Year 6: There is something special that happens when paper and books are involved”, she says.

“For us as human beings, being able to feel the outside world with our fingers means a lot, both cognitively and socio-emotionally.”

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

A more conscious relationship with technology

The reading researcher believes that the debate on attention and digitalisation is becoming too oversimplified. Reading doesn’t just involve one thing. According to Mangen, training one’s technical skills, such as letter connections, works great on a screen.

“I think the authorities should think about having a combination in the classroom, not just a screen or just a book”, she says.

According to the researchers, the deep reading experiment is not an attempt to eradicate technology from everyday student life, but to create a more conscious relationship among students about the type of technology they surround themselves with, the type of media they relate to, and the advantages and disadvantages it gives them.

The seed funds from EILIN have helped scale up the project at the Department of Social Anthropology, which Wig has run since 2018. Similar initiatives have already spread to Trondheim, SUM and several universities in England. In addition, students have started organising themselves into their own groups, he says.

“We hope to continue developing this project. Among other things, we will hold a gathering for pedagogical managers at the Faculty of Social Sciences at UiO. The aim is to share experiences from the experiment”, says Wig.

“Given that we have some interesting results, it will be exciting to find out how we can develop deep reading as a pedagogy in higher education.”

Photo: Erik Engblad / UiO

 

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The source of this news is from University of Oslo

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