Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2019

Reading Behaviour: research from Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly the New Zealand Book Council)

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Wikipedia Commons*)

A most interesting report popped into my inbox this morning.  The following comes from a report into the reading behaviour of New Zealanders, and it uses an interesting methodology.  Instead of using what people could recall of their reading, they texted survey participants to see what they were reading at that time. 

Clearly, the research participants were comfortable using a phone to receive the texts.  (It would be no good for me, all my friends know that I hate the phone and for preference, don’t have it anywhere near me. I am unlikely to see their texts until I charge the phone at night.  If it’s urgent, send me an email.)

The research process captures all that other reading that we do. For example, in the last hour this morning, I’ve read 28 emails; read four blog posts; read an article at The Conversation and this report; and haven’t read the news.

I have highlighted in bold, the findings that seem unexpected or worrying.

My thanks go to Melissa Wastney, Communication and Engagement Manager, at Read NZ Te Pou Muramura for permission to quote this press release:

New Zealanders spend half their waking lives online, are flicking between multiple texts at any given time, and are less likely to engage in long text, a new study shows.

Reading in a Digital Age, a unique insight into New Zealanders’ reading behaviour, has been released by Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council)Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council).

Unlike previous studies of our reading habits, this research was in part experiential and involved texting participants at various points across the day and week to monitor what they were reading at that moment in time. Previous studies have relied solely on what people have been able to recall of their reading behaviour.

The study found that at any point in time, two thirds of us are reading something and of those who are reading, 70% are reading online. We are most likely to be reading our emails, news websites or our social media feeds.

This online reading usually involves skimming and switching between different texts and devices at the same time. 53% of those surveyed said they usually skipped over long text when reading online.

44% said they found it harder to read long and challenging content than they did in the past. This is especially true of those aged 25-54 and tertiary qualified New Zealanders.

However, a third say they are reading more now than ever before because of the availability of content and ease and enjoyment of switching between formats.

Older New Zealanders, especially women, are still reading books for pleasure. The research concludes that online reading is displacing book reading, though not replacing it.

Read NZ CEO Jo Cribb says the organisation wanted to follow its previous research reports with a more in-depth look at online reading to better understand what people were actually doing.

“While we know much about our book reading habits, we also know that on average we spend half our waking life online. We wanted to learn more about what and how we are reading on our devices,” she says.

“The good news is that reading is such an important part of New Zealanders’ lives. But it is concerning that we’re finding it harder to read long and challenging content online than we might have in the past.

“We’re excited to release this research and share the challenges and opportunities it presents. We hope it will start a broader conversation about the importance of reading, and especially reading longer text,” says Jo.

Reading in the Digital Age was delivered for Read NZ Te Pou Muramura by Research First Ltd. A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.

One of the key messages in the full report is that much of this ‘reading’ does not reach the level of engagement that has been shown to provide the benefits associated with reading longer form pieces.  I think we knew that already, but in confirming it with research, the full report goes on to say this:

The argument that time spent online or with digital devices potentially undermines (rather than simply displaces) longer form reading is based on what all the time online does to our brains. In particular, the move to engaging with material through ‘continuous partial attention’ means an increase in ‘cognitive impatience’. This leads to the loss of what Professor Maryanne Wolf has called ‘deep reading’ – the kind of reading that requires the reader’s complete attention to understand the thoughts on the page. This lack of engagement means opportunities to develop the brain circuitry needed for deep reading are absent, which may also affect the ability to engage in deep reflection and original thought. Or, as Professor Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzilla put it, this change in reading behaviour might:

Short-circuit the development of slower, more cognitively demanding comprehensive processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking. If such truncated development occurs, we may be spawning a culture so inured to sound bites and thought bits that it fosters neither critical analysis nor contemplative processes in its members.

That is a very scary thought…

What do you think? 

Here’s a couple of little polls, of no research validity whatsoever because anyone still reading this post is by definition a reader of long texts:

Dare I ask… do you detect more shallow thinking among the people you connect with?

To read more about the effects of screen reading, see research here.

About Read NZ Te Pou Muramura

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura changed its name from the NZ Book Council in 2019.  It is Aotearoa’s only national agency dedicated to reading, seeking to build a nation of readers leading to social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

*Image credit:

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard – National Gallery of Art., Public Domain,


  1. Interesting research. My reading habits have changed a little, but for most of my adult life I have read a mixture of fiction, current affairs, business and sport. I read less fiction than I once did except that audio books have replaced television – I no longer watch series, when as little as 10 years ago I was engrossed by half a dozen each week. I still read some political and economic theory – essays rather than books, and increasingly less often as I get older.


    • Thanks for sharing this, Bill:)
      I hadn’t thought of this till you mentioned it, but I’m the same about TV series, though I do occasionally watch some of iView or (more commonly) buy the DVD and watch it at leisure. My NF reading has changed a bit: I mainly read literary bios these days, though my TBR shows good intentions of reading other things:)


  2. Interesting! I mostly find that people don’t read enough of things that challenge their existing perspective – they only read newspapers or online websites that agree with and bolster their existing prejudices. I think that was always the case to some degree but it seems excessive now. I also worry about the idea that people go on reading YA books well into adulthood – it seems like a desire to put off accepting maturity somehow. But perhaps it’s just the prejudices that come with my own advancing age that make me feel that way. And I never know whether it’s online distractions or simply the ageing process that make me spend less time reading “serious” books than I used to – a combination of both, perhaps.


    • Hello FF, and thank you for your comment:)
      I think you’re probably right that there are indeed readers who only read within their comfort zone – in an echo chamber of sorts, so that their own opinions are always reinforced by reading only people who agree with them. I think we’re all probably guilty of that to some extent (I never read anything to do with sport, for example), but it is worrying when issues demand a more balanced approach.
      YA is an interesting one, but in general I agree with you. YA is what it is, because it deals with the limited perspective of young people and the issues they care about. And even though YA writers cover a wide range of topics, I think it is a bit immature to see the world through that lens rather than move on to adult novels. Like reading about a granny from an adolescent’s perspective, instead of the granny’s PoV.
      Part of it may perhaps have something to do with the length of some novels. Some modern novels are very long indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Most of my serious conversations are with very few people and dare I say it serious and committed readers. As far as reading habits go mine have changed over time but rarely read for escapism.
    I do remember in the days of old when dinner parties and other social engagements allowed for good conversation with opportunities to have one’s thinking challenged. I am sure the participants would have been readers of serious literature and news analysis. It seems that many people don’t even have the skills required to maintain a conversation being only concerned about espousing ‘their opinion’ which is more often than not some reiteration of something they have heard through the mediocrity that calls itself Australian media. Such a shame they have not experienced the pleasure of good conversation but only know the world of constant interruption and distraction. Boo Hoo


    • I have seen the kind of thing you’re talking about, and what’s awkward about it is that those strongly held opinions often don’t allow for any discussion. People think you’re being rude if you don’t agree with them, and since it doesn’t seem worthwhile to die in a ditch over it, we often let things slide.
      I wonder if the reason so many young people are said to be lonely is that they break off friendships with people over differences of opinion?
      I do think that well-read people make great dinner party guests!


  4. I will raise an glass to that Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Lisa, a very interesting poll. I read as much as I used to, and I do spend time on the computer, but do skip content. I do not watch much television, too busy reading. I think far too many people read just the headlines. The only real in depth conversations I have is with a U3A group, called In the News. Of course there are contradicting views but that is when you learn more information.


    • You know, I’ve toyed with joining one of those groups. It sounds interesting…

      Liked by 1 person

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