It's no mystery that publications have been taking a beating as more and more people read their news on the Net. But there's a catch. The online info may be instant and abundant -- and in many cases free -- but it may come at a cost, says a new study published in the Journal of Research in Reading.

Study author Anne Mangen, an associate prof of literacy studies at Norway's University of Stavanger, says she discovered that reading online may not be as rewarding – or effective – as the printed word. The reasons: The process involves so much physical manipulation of the computer that it interferes with our ability to focus on and appreciate what we're reading; online text moves up and down the screen and lacks physical dimension, robbing us of a feeling of completeness; and multimedia features, such as links to videos and animations, leave little room for imagination, limiting our ability to form our own mental pictures to illustrate what we're reading.

"The visual happenings on the screen… and your physical interaction with the device is distracting," Mangen says. "All of these things are taxing on cognition and concentration in a way that a book is not."

Given her findings, Mangen says that the implications of digital technology should be considered when deciding whether to incorporate computer teaching tools into classroom instruction.  She notes that online teaching tools, such as electronic books, are being used from kindergarten up even though there is little research on their effect on learning and development.

"I know from studying kids' use of the Internet in schools that [there is] the issue of whether kids [stick to] reading," says Janet Schofield, a psychology prof at the University of Pittsburg, noting that "it's very easy [for them] to become distracted, because it takes so little effort to go somewhere else" online. She does not discount, however, that online reading has its pluses, most notably that it provides instant access to more info on topics of interest.

Richard Long of the International Reading Association, a nonprofit organization of literacy professionals in Newark, Del., says more research needs to be done to study the effects of online reading on different users. For instance, he says, many older people may absorb more or learn faster by flipping through pages, because their brains have been trained to read hard copy, whereas younger readers may learn faster digitally, because they're accustomed to working online. "Previous experience has a tremendous impact on rate and thoroughness of learning," he says. "The actual learning phenomenon is the same at the end of the day."

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