Audio Content: a Guilty Pleasure or Good For You?

Too Much Content, Too Little Time

In this day and age, quality content is abundant. We have a wide range of television shows and movies across multiple streaming services, podcasts, blogs and YouTube shows about every topic under the sun. With more and more stories being told from different perspectives, it feels like we’re sitting in front of a feast! As exciting as this is, it can also feel overwhelming — after all, there are only so many hours in a day! With evolving content comes evolving ways to consume. We live in a world in which a story can be told a thousand different ways, and they can be received in just as many ways! Audiobooks are now a staple of the literary world, and the rise of podcasts have made audio content a hot topic. When we think of “reading”, we picture sitting at a desk or in an armchair, diligently pouring over text with focus. To be frank, a lot of us probably still associate reading with school. Homework. A task to be completed. Having easy access to audio content makes one wonder — if it isn’t hard work, can it really be good for us? Is it cheating to listen instead of read?

Easy Listening

Well, first thing’s first. Why do so many people like to listen to things rather than read them? Listening offers a certain level of convenience. You don’t have to sit down somewhere and put all your energy into a text in order to take it in — instead, you can enjoy on the go, engaging with your favorite content while commuting to work, taking a walk, or getting chores done. You can maximize your time and make less fun tasks more enjoyable with audio content. It also offers a certain level of intimacy — like spending time with a friend telling a story. Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke, of the University of Texas, call listening to a story “a more social experience.”

Listening also makes content far more accessible! For people with dyslexia, or learning disabilities that make it difficult to process information visually, some content feels off-limits. Listening provides ingress to so many stories and texts that they may not have felt comfortable exploring. In fact, listening can make more dense texts feel less intimidating. In the last five years, audiobook engagement has doubled, while book purchases, both digital and physical, have stayed the same. That means more stories absorbed, regardless of medium.

But What About Good, Old Fashioned Books?

That’s not to say that reading visually doesn’t have it’s benefits. One study performed by David B. Daniel and William Douglas Woody in 2010 found that students presented with scientific information in the form of a 22-minute podcast versus those given the written information performed significantly worse on a test two days later. Psychologists have generally found that when it comes to technical data retention, reading the physical text is more useful. This is because roughly 15% of reading is actually rereading — going back to double check information and make sure it’s been absorbed accurately. However, novels, articles and blogs consumed for pleasure don’t require this level of memorization. While technical material might be more efficiently consumed through reading, listening to them can still open the door to the content in an appealing way. Consuming for pleasure can be done visually or aurally. The aforementioned Drs. Markman and Duke assert that when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no difference in participants who listened vs. participants who read.

Paper or Kindle Paperwhite

One important thing to keep in mind when comparing reading and listening is that a lot of modern reading takes place on a screen. Books and magazines are easily accessible on a kindle or tablet. You can get the news quicker virtually. Blogs, which provide some of the most enjoyable and fresh content, are exclusively accessible through devices. Multiple studies have found that in general, reading on printed paper makes for better understanding of the text. Interestingly enough, they have also found that we read faster on screens, and that we think we have a better understanding of the material if it is consumed on a screen, when in actuality the opposite tends to be true. This is not to say that reading on a screen is bad — there are many ways to interact with many different kinds of content. What it does lead us to think about is the fact that when discussing the pros and cons of listening, it is important to take into account where the content is normally accessible. Listening to a blog post, article, or book that you would otherwise be reading on a screen doesn’t do any worse for your mental engagement with the material.

Enhancing the Experience

Audio content is being developed and improved every day. To help make up for the in depth engagement that comes from rereading, many audio content hosts provide detailed, customizable navigation toggles. On the Apple Podcasts app, with one tap you can go back 15 seconds or forward 30 seconds. This way, if you mishear something or your mind wanders — as is perfectly normal in reading, regardless of the medium — you can easily take a step or two back and find your place. The pause button serves as both a bookmark and an opportunity to take gentle breaks as you listen. You can even adjust the speed, opting to listen to a quicker or slower version. These options help you get to know your needs as an aural reader and make whatever adjustments you need to maximize your experience.

So, is it Cheating?

Do we need to feel guilty just because listening is easy? Psychologists across the board agree that no guilt is necessary. It is not cheating to choose listening over reading. After all, ‘cheating” isn’t even really applicable when it comes to engaging with art. If you’re taking in a story, spending time with a person’s thoughts, thinking about and interacting with a piece of text… then you don’t need to worry about if the medium is “right” or not. In the words of psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, “audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none.” The accessibility and convenience of listening opens up a world of possibility to people who might otherwise avoid certain content. Listening can enhance otherwise dull or difficult tasks, like commuting or chores, and can be a wonderful addition to other healthy choices — cooking a healthy meal, taking a walk outside, or working out might not seem so daunting if you’ve got a friendly voice in your ear discussing something you’re interested in! Listening is an excellent way to engage with content. You don’t need to stress about whether or not it’s the “right” way to read. Just find what you love to engage with and keep listening.