It's official — the internet is making us dumb: The more you read online, the worse you write

A study of MBA students finds both complexity and style in writing suffer when people read mostly digital content

Published June 10, 2016 5:24PM (EDT)

I’ll always remember the year 1993 as a good one because that’s when I learned how to read. I was four years old, and desperate to engage in conversation with the adults (my parents, their friends, other family members) I noticed reading newspapers and books. My younger sister had yet to be born, so I was lonely. I figured knowing how to read would open the door to social and intellectual interaction with adults. It wasn’t long before I was devouring texts, and my love of literature still remains.

Our culture, unfortunately, makes it difficult for us to really value skills as literacy in the digital age.

A recent study in the International Journal of Business Administration looked at MBA students at the University of Florida to determine how reading habits shape writing ability. Scientists analyzed writing samples from student cover letters, which were believed to be the most telling form of a student’s best writing -- no one wants to make a bad impression on a cover letter -- to determine complexity and style.

The study found students who consume primarily digital content (such as Reddit and Buzzfeed) had the lowest writing complexity scores, while those who often read literature and academic journals had the highest levels of writing complexity.

“If you spend all your time reading Reddit, your writing is going to go to hell in a handcart,” warned Professor Yellowless Douglas, the study’s lead author, to the Boston Globe. “You should be very choosy -- and highly conscious of the impact -- of what you read.

This week, “The New Yorker” published an essay on whether reading can make a person happier, and the answer seems pretty obvious.

Bibliotherapy, as writer Ceridwen Dovey explains, involves using literature as a form of therapy. I had no idea this was even a thing until I read the essay. The cornerstone to many of my deepest relationships is the act of exchanging reading material. It’s a multi-faceted form of discovery when someone gives you a book: you find little pieces of yourself and the person who gave the book between the lines of the text as the story unfolds. It’s oddly intimate, too. Reading someone’s favorite novel provides rare insight into what sparks them. Funny how reading someone else’s words can bring two people so much closer.

Multiple studies have suggested reading fiction leads to increased levels of empathy in people. A 2013 study found that literary fiction in particular improves degrees of social perception and empathy, meaning reading literally makes us better people.

Despite the evidence that not reading makes us sound pretty dumb and unrefined, while consuming literary texts improves us, we remain tethered to technology that encourages communication in the most reduced form possible.

Last year’s Oxford word of the year was an emoji, and recently some poor soul was tasked with translating the Bible into emojis. These are just a few examples. How sad for younger generations to not know the value of reading a text and subsequently becoming completely enthralled by the way the words make you feel. It seems we’re increasingly exposed to gimmicky videos and emoji, full of sound and furious images of eggplants or crying-through-tear faces, symbolizing nothing.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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Books Internet Literacy Reading Writing