Millenials. The Digital Generation. Gen Y. There are different monikers for this generation, but the general characterization is of a younger person attached to their smartphone or other mobile device like a virtual umbilical cord. This is the generation that considers print about as useful a communication form as carrier pigeons, right?

The latest studies are indicating that this isn’t always the case. In fact, one current update from the Value of Print reports that “A recent study finds the new digital generation—teens, ages 12 to 17—generally have more favorable attitudes toward print, radio, and TV ads, than online ads. (Print in the Mix, U.S. Teens Prefer Offline Ads to Online.)

Actually, if you—or your customers—assume younger generations communicate solely on an electronic interface, it may be a surprise to learn that a significant number of college-age students today are choosing print for academic reading!


There are a number of misconceptions around how Gen Y students consume print material. In 2010 experts even predicted that eText (digital textbook) usage would rise more than 16%. However, this increase didn’t happen. (The Hays Daily News, Students Prefer Print).

In one study, “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media,” by Nancy M. Foasberg, set to be published in the journal College & Research Libraries in September 2014, researchers tracked the reading habits of the College of New York students. What they found was not a group of digital-addicted zombies but rather scholars who crave the tangible effectiveness printed textbooks afford.

Key findings of the study:

  • Although students used electronic media for non-academic reading, many rely on paper for academics.
  • As it turns out, students like the interactivity that print allows—taking notes and highlighting on the page.
  • Several students in the study expressed that they disliked the embedded links in eTexts because they were distracting.
  • Some students use digital textbooks because their schools offer eBook deals. However those who have eBooks end up printing them out and cancelling out any money they may have saved.

By the Numbers

For another way to see what medium students prefer, just look at the numbers. In a recent article from Brown University, eBook sales account for less than 0.5% of their bookstore revenue. Although the school expects the eventual transition to digital textbooks, according to Steven Souza, the bookstore’s director, “Students [currently] seem to have zero interest in [eTexts].”

The students there cite their preference for printed books on factors like the ease and familiarity. One student commented, “I like flipping though a textbook.”

This Is Your Brain on Print

Why do students seem to prefer print for academic reading? The Foasberg study claims there are scientific reasons behind their choice. Print may actually have an effect on the brain that makes it a more effective medium for learning. In the study, students who read printed materials before an exam scored an average of 10% higher.

Is a brain on print really different from a brain on digital? Another author of the study, Ferris Jabr, provided this interesting explanation:

“Research indicates the brain treats words as physical objects which have a placement on a page but are fleeting on screen. Measures of brain activity are high when a student writes letters by hand, but not when they are typed. Text provides us with both ‘deep reading’ and ‘context’.”

Jabr’s description would account for the higher-than-average test scores of print-using students. There are some people who can read a digital page and understand the context with clarity; however, it seems that print allows for “deep reading,” where the reader can absorb knowledge at a level that is not as common with electronic media.

So what about the next generation—that four-year-old who’s playing games on a tablet today? Will they adapt more easily and be able to achieve “deep reading” on digital media as we do on print? Will they be more favorable toward online ads?

Let us know your thoughts!

For more new facts on the effectiveness and sustainability of print, visit