Which is Better: Reading from a Screen or from Paper?

Pros (2)

Improving eyestrain in the office is popular ergonomics concern and challenge. We hope to be a value-add to your ergonomics process in addressing an often over-looked eyestrain source.

When you need to read a long document and have the option between reading it from the monitor or paper, which do you usually choose? Do you opt to read off your monitor or print off the document? Personally, I tend to just read off the monitor, but many choose to print-off documents for a variety of reasons, whether it be the ability to write notes in the margins, faster reading times, or less eyestrain. Interestingly, research from the 80s and 90s still has a lasting role in one of office ergonomic’s many conundrums related to eyestrain, specifically which is better to read from: paper or a monitor. Obviously, computer technology has much improved from 20 to 30 years ago and I know that a lot of you, me included are extremely grateful for this. Back then, much of this research was based on CRT display technology since that was the most popular and only monitor type available at the time. The research found that CRT monitors resulted in considerably more eyestrain related to reading or proof-reading on the monitor; proofreading performance diminished between 20 and 30% when done on a monitor, and reading from the monitor was also shown to have negative effects on subjective well-being, including eye-related symptoms (including dry eyes, blurred vision, or colour vision) and musculoskeletal pain (neck and back discomfort).

Today’s monitors have higher display resolution, higher background luminance, and flicker-free presentation technique when compared to the technology from up to 30 years ago. You would think that this would enhance the reading experience on the monitor. Yet, even with these improvements, there tends to be a general preference for reading from paper as compared to reading from a monitor.

Pros (2)

We all want to ensure that we aren’t introducing more eyestrain risk into our workplaces. So, let’s look at some of the findings from this research to determine which is better to prevent eyestrain – paper or the monitor.

  1. There was no difference found between proofreading performance and speed between on either the paper and monitor. Interestingly, there seems to be a slight advantage (but not enough to be significant) with reading text from a monitor when compared to paper.
  2. Yet, even with these promising results, the user’s physical discomfort ratings (related to eyestrain and fatigue) were higher after using the monitor. This may be due to the increased visual effort associated with reading on the monitor. Past research has identified that the blinking rate diminishes during computer work when compared to rest periods/computer free activities. A reduced blinking rate is attributed as the source for eye discomfort for many people.
  3. The preferred viewing distance was 10 cm further away when reading from the monitor when compared to paper. People generally found that the body positioning when reading paper was much more comfortable than when using the monitor, something that the researchers attributed to the visual angle. This highlights an important point about the ergonomics of workstations that sometimes we can overlook:
  4. When wanting to improve eyestrain, the real value can be found in optimizing the fundamentals of your workstation’s set-up, focusing on the monitor and chair.
  5. There were promising results in eyestrain reduction when the viewing angle was matched between the preferred paper and the monitor. Essentially the monitor was set-up to be exactly like how the user read from paper.
  6. Although there was no difference in reading speed found between the monitor and paper, there was more eyestrain and discomfort associated with the monitor condition.
  7. Even when the brightness of the monitor was reduced, which in my experience should give the user some relief, it still had no effect on eye discomfort ratings.

This research shows that people still seem to prefer paper over computer displays. Surprisingly this research used Millennials as participants, proving that even when a generation has grown up with computers, paper still seems to be favoured.

Ergonomic Considerations

To reduce eyestrain in the office ensure all these ergonomic fundamentals are addressed:

The 20/20/20 rule, where every 20 minutes you look at something 20 feet away for about 20 seconds.

Optimize the type of light used, brightness, light orientation, and placement.

Optimize the workstation with particular focus on monitor and chair height (of course without ignoring the other elements of an ergonomic set-up).

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Source 

Kopper, M., Mayr, S. & Buchner, A. (2016). Reading from computer screen versus reading from paper: does it still make a difference? Ergonomics. 59(5): 615-632.

Through the administration of countless assessments in both private and public sectors, Darcie has gained a wealth of knowledge and built a successful practice in the field of ergonomics. She has extensive expertise in conducting office ergonomics assessments in large scale workplaces for all different types of scenarios, from simple adjustments to incredibly complex cases. Darcie also has vast experience in delivering training presentations on the various aspects of ergonomics “best practices” in the workplace. Darcie is a Certified Professional Ergonomist through the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics, as recognized by the International Ergonomics Association. She also has a Masters of Science, specializing in ergonomics. A little known fact about Darcie is that she once scored from half, off a free kick, in a university varsity soccer (football) match!

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