Do Hyperlinks Endanger Reading?

Good-bye, old friends...

I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  Generally, I’d include a hyperlink to Carr’s book, but I’m not going to do so until the end of this blog post.


Because recent neurological studies cited in Carr’s fascinating book indicate that hyperlinks interrupt reading – and thus damage comprehension.

According to Carr:

“Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.”

Carr cited a study in which two groups of people read a short story.  One group from a printed page.  The second group on a computer screen filled with hyperlinks.  The two groups were then asked a series of questions about the content.  In each instance, the group that read from the printed page scored significantly higher than the group that read from the screen.  In fact, the computer screen readers were often left confused and had a more difficult time understanding the context.

We live in the age of distraction – and most of that is coming from the Internet.  Cell phones buzz in our pockets.  Calendar reminders pop up on the screen.  Every email – no matter how trivial – announces its arrival with a ping and a pop-up message.  There are multiple screens opened on our computers at any given time – email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, new sites, etc…

We are seeing more words and images than ever before.  But are we comprehending them?  Are we absorbing the knowledge or does it fail to enter into our long-term memories because we are immediately interrupted by something else?  Is it possible to do “deep” reading on the Internet when the average time most of us spend on a web page in less than three minutes?

Or are we becoming content skimmers – always skipping along the surface?

So I’m going to try an experiment at HighTalk and not use hyperlinks – until the end of a blog post.  I’d be interested in what you think of hyperlinks.  Are they a distraction to you?  Do you click on them or ignore them?  Has the Internet changed the way you think and interact with media?  Are you watching TV and surfing the web at the same time?  Do you have difficulty reading books?  When was the last time you read a book?


Carr’s book: “The Shallows”

Carr’s blog post on hyperlinks

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6 Responses to “Do Hyperlinks Endanger Reading?”

  1. This post addresses a problem I once approached cursorily from a similar angle: tabbing in internet browsers.

    As a recent graduate, I still resort to reading numerous sources online until the days when I can afford subscriptions. I do much prefer print! Coming across hyperlinks of interest, I open them in new tabs with the intention of getting to them later–this minimizes the interruption but crowds the browser. Eventually tabs that have been open for ages are dubbed insignificant simply because they’ve been there open and idle for so long.

    The internet is distracting. And I don’t think it’s good [distraction], nor likely that its good outweighs the negative effects. (Don’t get me wrong, the internet is wonderful and I use it nigh constantly) But there is much less commitment (or something else?) reading online or even on a screen, with or without hyperlinks, than when one has a book, a paper: like watching movies on television even when one owns the movie on dvd!

    Where in this discussion do you think iPads and Nooks and the sort fall?

  2. Hi Makeuporcoke:
    At first I was excited about the possibilities of the iPad and adding multimedia elements to books – I imagine moving illustrations, the ability to share and discuss content, and easy search.

    But I’ve become skeptical that adding these features is good for reading comprehension. It is difficult enough these days just to find the time to read without distractions – never mind when the distractions are built into your reading device…

  3. Interesting article. I find there are times when I want to focus on a particular piece of content and just read it, and there are other times when I WANT the links so I can follow them to learn more.

    I think we need to add a “Hide links” button to every page. By default, links are shown on a page (blue underlined). But if desired, I can click the button to hide all links. This would let me focus on the content and read it start to finish. Then I can turn the links back on to follow them.

    What do you think?

  4. Hi Patty:
    What a simple, but very cool idea!

  5. Sometimes hyperlink disturb my reading, when the link linking to a page that seems more interesting, in the end i end up neglecting the first article i read


  1. Hyperlinks interrupt reading « Sarahrink - July 8, 2010

    […] that this post is finished, off you go, here is the link: Do Hyperlinks Endanger Reading? Me […]

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