Screen usage in a nutshell: From society to interpersonal relationships and effects on our brain.


Our object is the screen. At the beginning we looked at four areas that each group member found exciting. These areas were quickly reduced to 3 sub-areas: The history of the screen, the perception of the screen and the cognitive processes of the screen. For a long time we found it a challenge to connect these areas with each other, but now we were able to create a main logic for the presentation. 

We want to start from a meta-level (the society), go over a macro-level (interpersonal relationships) and end with a micro-level (personal impact on our brain). Three questions follow this logic: What was the original intention behind the invention of the screen? How do people today perceive the relationship with their screens? And what is the effect of screen usage on our brain? 


Part one. History: What was the original intention behind the invention of the screen?

First, we pinpointed one key event in the history of personal computer – “Mother of all Demos” a landmark computer demonstration where Douglas Engelbart showcased personal computer in an almost 2-hour long presentation. Engelbart and his engineering team in the 60s had a vision to assist humanity in tackling the growing complexity and urgency of the rapidly progressing world through the introduction of a personal, multipurpose machine. This computer system was ideated as an augmentation tool of human intellect that could take over tasks of various complexity (including even the most trivial ones like making a shopping list) in order to open human intellectual capacities for something more complex and important. In this framework, human and computational technology evolve together in their constant “symbiosis” can facilitate the advent of revolutionary technological advancements and progress of human society. Moreover, the aspect of human collaboration was believed to be highly important and was facilitated through the introduction of collaborative tools- from real-time text editing to video conferencing. 

Making a computer personal in contrast to computational monoliths funded by the U.S. government that could be used only for a narrow list of purposes and usually not without a permission was believed to transform society, education, creativity, and the world as we knew it, making each person, on his own terms, self-reliant and free.


Part two. Perception: How do people today perceive the relationship with their screens? 

Screens have been associated with many negative associations in the past and words like digital detox were on everyone’s lips. We wanted to find out if and how the relationship to our screens changed during the Corona period and if these changes could have an impact on the future. For this purpose we collected 6 interviews with a length of 30 minutes or more. We developed an interview guideline beforehand, which included very open questions in a first step in order to not influence the participants responses. In a second step, we asked more in-depth questions on specific topics that were of interest to us, for example data protection. Accordingly, the interviews themselves were also conducted by telephone or video call. 

What were the results? Firstly, it can be stated that the use of the screen has intensified for various reasons. The interviewees, who are already in professional life, now need the screen for all their work activities. Before the pandemic, their working life had consisted of many meetings, which have now been replaced by screen meetings. The majority of people find these screen meetings more efficient than personal meetings, because they do not have to travel to work or other locations. However, informal contact with the colleagues is being missed by almost all interview partners. Nobody would welcome the idea of only doing home office in the future. Nevertheless, there are those who would prefer only one day of Homeoffice in the future and others who would like four days of homeoffice.

As far as personal contact with family and friends is concerned, all participants agree that this cannot be replaced by screens. Among other things, because sharing a hot meal over a video call is not the same as sitting at a table. Regarding screen gaze, the participants were not worried at all. They want products that are tailored to them. But they all had concerns about their use of Instagram and wanted to reduce their time on that platform. However, they found the implementation extremely difficult. Because they referred to it as an addiction.


Part three. Cognitive processes: What is the effect of screen usage on our brain?

Something that is interesting to notice is that this perception of the reader depends on the structure of the page itself. Online pages and physical pages are presented to the person with two different layouts, which leads to two totally different experiences. What constitute a key point in screen reading is the distinctive environment in which the person is called to act on. The digital frame presents itself a stage, in which people are called to perform; therefore, much more choices and pathways are presented – and this is due to the presence of hypertextual links, authorial and publication info, other readers (with comments). The reader can decide to click on certain links, follow the suggestion of the writer to look up a particular study, to share a specific passage with friends, but also to just keep scrolling. All these aspects, of course, contribute to a different way to approach a text, that, according to some studies, leads to failing to engage in consolidation or integration processes regularly. In this sense, the thing about screen reading is that it pushes toward a different kind of process of decodification of content – and this is due to the fact that the artifact in use is different in comparison to the traditional one, with different features and different dimensions to be explored. 

As last thing, the possibility to enlarge the page, to go forward and backwards can give us the possibility to understand the material aspect of it. Each of us is experience this page (the blog page!) in different formats, which in turn lead us to a different perception of it. Someone might be reading it bigger, someone smaller; someone could be using a laptop and someone could be using a smartphone. And those are just few ways of portraying the same content. So isn’t the screen just another object, with specific boundaries and features?

While studies conducted before 1992 have mostly shown that reading is slower and less attentive on screen rather than on paper, more recent studies may indicate that it is not as simple. First, it seems to show that reading online is now faster. However, although students may prefer reading online and feel that they perform better this way, research has shown that students actually get a deeper understanding of their readings on paper. So, what’s going on? How does the reading medium actually impact the way our body works? 

There is something about LED screens. This is especially relevant with the increase in use of LEDs in our screens, since they are considered more environment-friendly and energy efficient. While you may have heard a lot of complaints about blue light, I’m here to advocate in their favor! Blue light is actually great for your performance. It inhibits the production of melatonin, the molecule responsible for sleepiness. During the day, blue light may help you boost alertness and elevate your mood, all while improving your memory and cognitive functions. It also helps regulate your circadian cycles by maintaining your natural sleep cycles healthfully. You may now wonder why don’t we just consume blue light until there is no blue light left in the Universe? Well, as you may have guessed by now, blue light basically keeps your brain active. Consumed in the evening, it may negatively impact your circadian cycle, by tricking your brain into thinking that it is not time to sleep – when really, it is. Excessive exposure to blue light may also cause digital eyestrain, which you may experience with symptoms such as sore or irritated eyes and difficulty focusing. Finally (and not to scare you, but…) continued exposure to blue light may over time lead to damage to your retina, causing age-related vision degeneration issues. 

But let’s now have a look at how digital reading affects the way your brain works. Reading on a screen is associated with a specific reading pattern: you’ll spend more time browsing, scanning, keyword, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively rather than in-depth reading, and concentrated reading. This indicates that screens are more suited to concrete thinking, pinpointing facts and concrete details, while paper affords more abstract thinking. To sum up, if you want to remember the dates of a certain event, try to use a screen. On the contrary, if you need to remember why the event occurred or where, then reading it on paper might help. Additionally, screen reading may help remember (which is usually associated with shorter-term recalling) while students who read on paper rely most heavily on knowing rather than remembering, although they need to spend more time reading. 

The last interesting bit about how our brains work has to do with sense-making, and how our brains interpret what we read. I will keep it simple: a study managed to demonstrate (thanks to a bunch of students learning 150 nonsensical words) that the region of the brain that is activated for meaning-making is located in the visual word form area of the brain, located in the left side of the visual cortex. Basically, what goes on in there is a visual dictionary where people store loads of words that they can recognize instantly, without having to sound them (for example, because English is not your native language, you probably learned that CAR is a car, rather than learning that C-A-R is a car!). Ok, so what? What this study means, is that our brains are quicker at making sense of things when it can create a mental visualization of that thing, which means that text is perceived by our brains like a physical landscape of words. This translates into our reading patterns, meaning that we tend to process information faster if we can map them into a physician structure. See where I’m getting at? In the same way that you may remember the bus stop because it is located near the bakery, itself located after the post office, itself located in front of the library (…), you remember textual elements better if you can locate them. That’s why reading on paper may increase your recollection capacities, although this may not be true for all types of information. That’s also why scrolling may disrupt your memory and focus: when scrolling, you don’t realize how many pages you went through: you lose your reference points. This may also partially explain why digital reading has been shown to lead to haptic dissonance. Reading on-screen disrupts intuitive navigation patterns. As you only see one page at a time, you can’t locate how far you are in your reading with, for example, the thickness of the book. You can’t physically feel where it starts, where it ends, how far you have gone, your reading pace – all location cues that help to recall information. Additionally, as readers are used to books and paper material, they expect a certain texture, smell, weight. When these expectations are not meant by the digital experience, it creates an unpleasant experience, which may among others lead to slower adoption rates of ebook technologies. 


Across the years of the boom of personal computers users grew to develop their own personal relationships with them. Though initially computer screens were seen as a space for work and task management, it did not take long until the appearance of first screen-based interactive games, artistic implementations, and the communication technologies of the World Wide Web. With private investment and big corporations taking over, screens became an integral part of our life practices, whether work, private communication, creative activities, or entertainment. The medium-specific properties have generated the medium-specific practices which grew to be inextricably linked to it. 

It became evident that the human interactions with the screen is by no means a one-way action, rather we find ourselves in constant feedback-based interaction. Screens and computer technology have been gradually shaping out modes of interactions, cognitive processes and strategies, that has resulted in adaptive changes. From 60s idea of human-computer symbiosis as a collaboration of two organisms, screens have penetrated our life practices to the point that we can figuratively imagine them as our to physical and mental prosthesis and us as cyborgs that unawares percove this technology as the extensions of ourselves.