Technology is constantly blamed for killing our attention spans, lowering the tenor of our debates, and reinforcing our biases. According to this story, all the time you spend looking at your phone is probably making you dumber and more distracted.
What's the solution? Often the answer is books. Everyone from Warren Buffett to Bill Gates to Barack Obama has suggested that reading is the best way to strengthen your brain and learn how to think straight in a world full of noise.
According to these two arguments, screens are bad and books are good. But what if things were a bit more complicated? There's no shortage of evidence that the sort of skim reading across a dozen open tabs we tend to do on our phones is less than awesome for your brain, but what if your phone was also one of the most powerful tools out there to help you read more books?
The case for reading on your phone
That's what law student Anthony Draper argued in a fascinating BetterHumans piece recently (hat tip, Boing Boing). The long article explains all the hacks and tricks Draper used to successfully read two books a week this year. It's full of lots of useful advice, but perhaps the most helpful is also the most surprising. To increase his reading, Draper has leaned heavily on his iPhone.
"I turned on the downtime feature on my iPhone's Screen Time settings so that all of my apps lock after 10 p.m. -- with the exception of the Books app, Wildfulness (nature noises), and the clock (to set my alarm for the morning)," he reports.
The results from just this one small change have been impressive, converting a half-hour of YouTube time into a half-hour of bedtime reading. But that isn't the most important way Draper has leveraged his phone to read more. Despite loving physical books, Draper says switching over to reading almost exclusively from his iPhone has helped him get through a ton more books in a couple of ways:
"The smaller screen size enables me to read more quickly without losing any information retention. Why? Studies show that reduced eye movement increases reading speed. It's the same idea behind those speed-reading apps that show each word at a time in the same place on the screen. The less your eyes move, the quicker you can read," Draper writes.
And, secondly, "It's always with me," he notes. "So when I'm waiting for something, standing in line, or (pre-Covid) taking the bus, I can just read for a few minutes instead of getting on Instagram and scrolling through a few posts or stories."
By leveraging his phone, Draper has gotten his reading up to an impressive 450 pages a week. Which complicates the message of those who argue that phones are ruining our ability to really sink into books. If you're using your phone to endlessly scroll through social media, that definitely is the case, but Draper's post is a useful reminder that, if you use it right, your phone can also be a powerful tool for building a brain-enhancing reading habit.