Is the Pen Mightier Than the Keyboard? 6 Advantages of Paper in the Digital Era

With the rise of digital transformation, paper products are quickly becoming obsolete in many day-to-day situations. Learn how paper still plays a role and its advantages over digital.

It seems like every aspect of life is digital these days, but there are some things that electronics may never be able to replace. Consider all the paper goods around your house, office, or workspace. Maybe you have a physical planner or desk calendar that reminds you to map out important weekly events when you see it or a book collection that you’ve used to decorate your home. Perhaps you even have childhood journals that you keep for sentimental value.

There are infinite uses for paper, whatever form it comes in. Paper has distinct benefits over digital mediums — such as its visibility, its feel, or the personal touch it brings when given as a handwritten note or greeting card. Using paper may seem like a romanticized notion in the computer age, but it’s far from obsolete. 

Let’s talk about the benefits of paper at home, school, and work. We’ll also discuss the science behind some of these claims as well as the implications for individuals and key decision-makers in offices and schools.

6 Reasons Paper Will Always Be Relevant in Our Digital Society

It’s difficult to function in the world today without using technology in some way, but statistics show that people still prefer paper goods for various purposes despite the convenience of modern resources. According to the Association of American Publishers’ 2019 report, for example, paper books are still outselling e-books, indicating that there’s something special about holding a book and flipping through the pages — which brings us to our first point.

#1: Paper is conducive to better attention and engagement

Market researchers have found that the average smartphone user touches their phone an average of 2,617 times per day. This number increases when digital devices are used in an office or classroom. 

It seems like we can’t escape the constant stream of text messages, app notifications, emails, digital reminders, and social media pings. These distractions disrupt focus, attention span, and engagement, interfering with critical learning time. Many students claim to be effective multitaskers, but a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University has said that switching tasks constantly is a habit that directly conflicts with focused attentiveness. Students can’t truly engage with their learning material when there are so many other things begging for their attention.

Workers and students without devices in front of them at all times will undoubtedly be more present. If your office or classroom were to adopt a paper-only policy during key brainstorming or learning times, employees and students would likely find themselves working better with others and participating more actively in their own learning or on behalf of clients. 

#2: Paper provides a unique sensory experience that people love

Our society has become so computerized that we’ve developed a greater appreciation for tactile and other sensory experiences. If you’ve ever wandered through a library or bookstore picking up books to inhale that “new/old book smell,” thumb through the pages, run your fingers down the spine, or admire a beautiful textured cover, you know what we mean. Print junkies also love the feeling of gliding their favorite pen over the surface of a sheet of paper (especially when crossing something off a to-do list — is anything more satisfying?).

Ink on paper is a multi-sensory experience, and research has shown that the greater number of senses stimulated while reading, the better the memory retention and emotional connection to the content. It’s no wonder why the first e-readers made a “whoosh” noise to mimic the sound of turning a physical book page! People simply love the experience of books.

#3: Paper creates a more personal connection between individuals

Ever wondered why people still send greeting cards for special occasions when they could opt for the convenience of instant emails and texts? Our society seems to place higher value in the personal touch of a paper card. Physical mementos express emotional sentiments and make lasting impressions, so it’s no wonder that we still send out wedding invitations and handwritten thank-you notes after job interviews.

Neurologists at Mindlab, an independent research company, explored in 2014 what happens in the brain when people receive physical greeting cards. They measured emotional activity in response to texts and emails compared to greeting cards and found that greeting cards had a more positive effect on the emotional processing center of the brain — and it’s not hard to understand why.

Think about the process of mailing a card. The sender takes the time to choose a card that matches the recipient’s personality and the occasion. They then put their hand to the paper and express sincere sentiments in their own handwriting. They not only spend money on the card itself and whatever is inside of it, but also on the postage, and they go out of their way to mail it. 

When someone goes the extra mile to physically show how much they care, it resonates with the recipient and evokes positive feelings. It’s a very visible and impactful reminder that you are in the sender’s thoughts. 

#4: Paper may be better for our bodies and mental faculties than screens

Our lives are dominated by screens of all sizes. We communicate with our small screen, work on a medium screen, and relax with a large screen. All of this screen time can impact our sleep and the health of our eyes. 

Harvard Health has shown that overexposure to blue light from your phone or TV at night can block the effects of sleep chemicals and reduce the quality of your rest. What’s more, exposure to light at night has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. By being on screens so much, we’re also susceptible to computer vision syndrome, or eye strain, which is marked by blurry vision, dry eyes, muscle pain, and headaches. If you read for pleasure or study late at night, consider switching to paper books and physical notes in the hours before bed. Your eyes won’t tire as easily, and you’ll sleep better when you’re ready to turn in for the night.

Office workers and students might even enjoy having a break from being on their screens during the day. While screens can often make people feel rushed to create content and generate ideas quickly, working on paper is therapeutic, helping them slow down and be more mindful of their thoughts. This is because handwriting increases neural activity in some of the same sections of the brain that are active during meditation, which can go a long way in reducing stress and anxiety. 

#5: Paper is associated with better reading comprehension and mental acuity

Recent studies have also linked physical print to better reading comprehension when compared with digital media. In a 2016 study on paper versus digital reading, it was found that undergraduates grasped main ideas when reading digital articles, but they missed important supporting details. People read faster on screens — but with less accuracy. 

This can be attributed to eye strain and the amount of information we go through online every day (news articles, social posts, clickbait, etc.). It feels like there’s so much to read on the internet and not enough time to read it all, so we scan texts for main ideas instead of reading every word.  

From a neurological standpoint, the brain processes physical and digital information differently. When reading print materials, the emotional processing centers of the brain are activated as well as the parietal cortex, which processes spatial cues. This tells us that paper reading yields deeper emotional experiences with reading materials, and that visual-spatial cues (like the location of words on paper) help us better organize and process information.

Reading and writing on physical paper has also been linked to an increase in critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. When students aren’t dependent onReading and writing on physical paper has also been linked to an increase in critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. When students aren’t dependent on the internet to give them ideas or answers on demand, they may be delighted to discover that they can generate better solutions by themselves. 
 the internet to give them ideas or answers on demand, they may be delighted to discover that they can generate better solutions by themselves. 

#6: Paper note-taking is more fun and effective

Is it better to write or type notes? Typing is undoubtedly faster, but research has found that, when it comes to long-term information retention, taking notes by hand on paper always beats out digital note-taking. Even when laptops are used for note-taking in class, they can still be a detriment to academic performance. 

At Princeton University, a psychological scientist found that taking notes on a computer versus on paper leads to mindless verbatim transcriptions that fail to help the student recall conceptual information. On the other hand, the paper note-takers had to quickly process and condense concepts and select the most critical pieces of information to jot down in order to keep up with the lecturer. This led to much better recall a week later and better test performance. To sum it up, we learn new material faster and more effectively when taking notes by hand.

“Handwriting truly is a more complex cognitive process than keyboarding, by combining neurosensory experiences with fine motor skills, inextricably choreographing both movement and thought.”Antonio Cantu, PhD

Not only does physical note-taking lead to better recall and retention, but it can also be more fun! When taking notes by hand, students aren’t limited to the capabilities of their processor. They can use a variety of mediums, including gel pens, markers, colored pencils, or even brush pens to draw concepts, create mind maps, illustrate bullet journals, and more. The only limit is their own creativity.

Implications for Your Workplace or School

All of this isn’t to say that your students and employees should never use screens to read or take notes. We are fortunate to live in a miraculous time of tremendous convenience and information accessibility. Rather, paper materials can be a great supplement to technology and enrich the work or classroom experience.

There is a time and a place for pens and keyboards. As your school or workplace experiments to discover which settings are more suitable for paper, you may be able to increase your bottom line through greater employee productivity. You’ll see your students learning and retaining information more effectively and performing better on exams. You may even experience higher-quality engagements with those around you and increase your job satisfaction.