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Blog post Part of special issue: To read, or not to read?

How do adults read ebooks? Exploring the connection to motivation and experience with e-reading

Pauliina Vuorinen, PhD Student at University of Edinburgh

When and where do adults read? For how long at a time? Answers to these questions might be helpful in finding ways for more adults to incorporate reading for pleasure into their busy everyday lives.

Many adults struggle to find the time to read a book while juggling their everyday responsibilities. Although the benefits of reading for pleasure have been well established (see for example Mol & Bus, 2011 for a review), the development of effective practices to promote reading has been stalled by our limited understanding of how adults read in their everyday life.

Studying natural reading behaviour is tricky because of the limited availability of methodologies, and the changing landscape of reading engagement. Technology has revolutionised our reading habits, and 30 per cent of adults in the UK and US now read ebooks for leisure on a dedicated e-reader, smartphone, tablet or a laptop (Faverio & Perrin, 2022; Nielsen, 2016). Reading behaviour is likely to be different between print and ebooks as the two formats provide different qualities and uses: whereas print books allow us to manipulate pages, for example, by dog-earing corners or by bending the page to view another simultaneously, electronic devices lack the same materiality; ebooks, meanwhile, are fluid, with chapters ebbing and flowing between page turns, and navigation requiring different techniques to print books.

These differences have led some researchers to suggest that digital devices do not support engaged reading. For example, Mangen (2008) argues that the intangibility of electronic texts makes reading more distractible, making it difficult for the reader to become immersed in the story. However, the root of the problem may not be the characteristics of ebooks, but our lack of experience in reading them. Most adults have spent hours upon hours in front of a screen, but only a few are experienced in reading electronically for extended periods of time. Instead, we tend to e-read in short sprints, taking in only a couple of sentences before becoming distracted by notifications, or other online content (Liu, 2021). When we are familiar with using our digital devices in this way, these behaviours can creep into tasks that require focus, such as reading (Baron, 2017). Supporting adults in gaining task-relevant experience of reading long-form texts electronically could allow readers to access the potential of ebooks: a wide variety of books are available online, ebooks allow readers to easily bring books with them wherever they go, and the ability to adjust reading layouts can make reading more widely accessible.

‘Supporting adults in gaining task-relevant experience of reading long-form texts electronically could allow readers to access the potential of ebooks.’

In my PhD research, I seek to understand adults’ reading behaviour on digital devices. Across two studies, 793 adults’ reading behaviour was observed with a new and innovative method. We created an online e-reader that is similar to popular applications such as Amazon Kindle or Apple Books. The e-reader has embedded tracking functions which allowed us to observe the ways in which adults read ebooks on their own devices.

Findings showed that most adults tend to read in sessions lasting only 10 to 15 minutes. The reading sessions were not distraction-free either, as most participants focused continuously on the text for only 5–7 minutes at a time. The participants read in a variety of locations, ranging from work and transport to restaurants, although reading in the comfort of one’s home proved to be most popular, despite one of the biggest selling points of ebooks being their transportability.

Moreover, motivation and task-relevant experience were found to play a role in how readers approach difficult reading material. Generally motivated avid readers read difficult texts more slowly and carefully, whereas less motivated readers raced ahead despite of their difficulty comprehending the text. Similarly, participants who were more familiar with electronic reading were likely to slow down with difficult texts more often than adults inexperienced with e-reading. Adults with low motivation and little task-relevant experience with e-reading may feel less engaged with ebooks, which can cause them to disregard the need for rereading in order to finish the text faster.

Reading behaviour research is only in its infancy, but it has great potential to support future promotions to encourage reading for pleasure. My findings showed that adults vary in the ways in which they read ebooks. This variance, and its connection to motivation and task-relevant experience, could explain why some manage to get through dozens of books a year, whereas others struggle to find the time to read.


Baron, N. S. (2017). Reading in a digital age. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(2), 15–20.

Faverio, M., & Perrin, A. (2022). Three-in-ten Americans now read e-books. Pew Research Center.

Liu, Z. (2022). Reading in the age of digital distraction. Journal of Documentation, 78(6), 1201–1212.

Mangen, A. (2008). Hypertext fiction reading: Haptics and immersion. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(4), 404–419.

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267–296.

Nielsen. (2016). Nielsen book research: 2015 in review. The Nielsen Company.

Funders: ESRC and the School of Informatics

Supervisors: Prof Frank Keller and Prof Benjamin Tatler, with support from Dr Maria Wolters and Dr Sarah McGeown

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