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eReader vs. Printed Book: Which Is Better for Your Eyesight?

In today’s increasingly digital world, interactions with printed media are becoming less common every day. Between smart phones, handheld game systems, high definition televisions and computer monitors, more and more people are spending their time looking at screens, rather than pages.

What effect is this having on our eyesight?

It’s becoming common knowledge that these screens cause our eyes to work in different ways than print does. With the rise in recognized cases of Computer Vision Syndrome (or CVS, a condition that arises from frequently looking at a computer monitor without giving your eyes the requisite breaks), worrying about the effects that eReaders, such as the Kindle and Nook, have on your vision is certainly warranted.

Pixelated Problems

After reading about CVS, you may think that similar problems would arise from eReaders. After all, digital screens are all one and the same, right? That’s not necessarily the case.

Several different factors can cause Computer Vision Syndrome, as they combine to form a nasty set of issues. Partially, the way computer monitors display images plays a part in the cause.

Rather than showing one full image, pictures and text on a monitor are drawn in tiny little pieces called ‘pixels’. This causes the eye to focus a little bit harder while looking at images on a monitor. It can lead to eyestrain, headaches, and blurry vision if you don’t give your eyes a rest from time to time.

While CVS is a possible concern when reading on an iPad or other tablet, as they use pixels for their screens as well, it probably isn’t an issue for most eReaders.

Two of the most popular dedicated eReaders, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Nobles’ Nook, use a different type of display, called eInk. This display type more closely mimics the look of printed paper and has shown a reduced tendency to cause eye problems, as compared to other digital screens.

However, eInk does have a low contrast ratio. During the daytime with bright natural light, low contrast isn’t an issue. But, reading at night can be difficult on an eReader with low contrast. Without adequate lighting, eInk can sometimes cause eye strain and other CVS-like symptoms.

There has also been research showing that newer LCD screens, with their faster refresh times and higher resolutions, cause much fewer problems with eyesight than older screens. It’s likely that, as technology continues to advance and screens become better, CVS will cease to be a problem entirely.

Traditional Reading

Reading a printed page has its own set of issues. Reading is a much more intricate activity than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that when reading, the muscles in your eyes move around 10,000 times an hour. So even when picking a book up from the shelf, eyestrain is a risk.

Avid readers should try and take a break every ten minutes to prevent any problems from arising.

Light sources are another concern. Digital media can come with backlighting, allowing for higher contrast even in the darkest of environments. Regular, printed books don’t have that option, so you’ll have to take into consideration the places you plan to read.

The Verdict

So, if eyestrain is a risk with digital media as well as plain old printed books, which is the right choice? There have been multiple studies performed in the last decade that support both arguments. Depending on your own particular situation, you might benefit more from one or the other reading medium.

Experts say that while it largely comes down to personal choice, those with poor eyesight probably benefit more from the digital version.

One study had 100 different participants reading passages on three different mediums: the traditional printed form, on a Kindle, and on an iPad. Their words-per-minute for each were calculated, and then compared.

The results were startlingly clear.

People with poor eyesight could read better on a backlit screen. Even the Kindle used for the study, an older version that didn’t have the newer lighted screen, showed an increase in reading speed for those with worse vision.

The researchers believe that the digital mediums’ increased background contrast was the root cause of the improvement. However, individuals with good eyesight preferred the traditional printed book. Whether you read traditional books or eReaders, it’s important to focus on taking breaks and using moderation.

So, the answer to the eReader versus printed book debate seems to be: whatever works best for you.

Take into account the lighting conditions where you’ll be reading most of the time, your own particular level of vision, and your budget (since eReaders and tablets can be pricey), and get reading. And, regardless of the medium, make sure you rest your eyes often.

This post originally appeared on Rebuild Your Vision.


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