Welcome to Modern Times’ Newest Malady: “Digital Dementia.”

Digital dementia among young people: studies in South Korean, the U.S. and Germany confirmIt seems like a new “unintended consequence” of our digital age emerges every other week.  Recently it’s been a spate of warnings about the dangers of texting while driving.

And now we have reports of a condition dubbed “digital dementia” that’s supposedly plaguing teens and Millennials.

This phenomenon is being reported out of South Korea, a country that happens to have the highest rate of smartphone adoption in the world.  More than two thirds of all South Korean adults have a smartphone, and among teenagers, it’s nearly as high (~64%).

Indeed, according to the country’s Ministry of Science, smartphone adoption by South Korean teens has jumped more than 200% since 2011 when it was less than 22%.

So what is “digital dementia”?  It’s described as the deterioration in cognitive abilities that comes from an imbalanced development of brain functions.

Commenting on the use of smartphones and gaming devices among young people, “Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped,” claims Byun Gi-won, a physician at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul.

According to Dr. Gi-won, such overuse results in symptoms that are more commonly observed in people who have psychiatric illnesses or have suffered head injuries.

The country’s Ministry of Science estimates that nearly one in five South Koreans ages 10-19 use their smartphone seven hours per day or more.  That’s up sharply from around 10% doing so just a year before.

Is the phenomenon of “digital dementia” among the young confined to South Korea or East Asia?  Manfred Spitzer, a professor of neuroscience in Germany, thinks not.  He’s the author of a book on digital dementia that was published in 2012, wherein he warned of the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time on electronic devices such as tablets, smartphones and game devices.

Dr. Manfred Spitzer, author of "Digital Dementia."
Do you recognize this face? Dr. Manfred Spitzer, author of “Digital Dementia.”

In fact, Dr. Spitzer maintains that deficits in brain development are irreversible.  His solution:  Ban digital media from German classrooms completely.

Dream on, professor.  That’s certainly not going to happen!

Likewise, we have a recent study from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles that points to increasing memory problems among people ages 18-39.  The UCLA report blames “modern lifestyles,” claiming that the many digital gadgets within easy reach of young people prevent them from developing memorization skills and other forms of focus.

On the other hand, that same UCLA study concludes that for some older patients suffering from mental decline, engaging in brain-fitness computer games like Luminosity or Posit Science’s Brain HQ have improved their language and memory skills significantly.

Considering that age-related memory decline affects as many as 40% of older adults, that UCLA finding may turn out to be as noteworthy on the positive side of the ledger as the South Korean one on the negative side about young people.

Like any other “transformational” technology, the digital revolution continues to play out in unexpected ways.  Somehow, I expect us to be hearing many more reports of this type as the years roll on.

Not that these theories of cognitive weakness don’t have their detractors.  You can read several strongly worded retorts here and here.

What do readers think?  Big news … or bunk?  Please share your thoughts here.

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Modern Times’ Newest Malady: “Digital Dementia.”

  1. In the 1990s, we were taught that playing computer games would even sharpen our mental skills. But now this enormous increase in gadgets — and that too in the hands of five-year olds (or even four at times) is certainly alarming.

    This is causing some sort of disorder for sure. But then again, we can’t live without these gadgets now! 🙂

  2. Well, I heard about two studies, conducted a few years back, that came to curiously similar conclusions: Kids who read texts in digital formats tend not to retain as much information as when they read similar texts on sheets of paper.

    This was brought to my attention by a foreign language professor at Boston University. Since language learning inevitably involves the memorization of large new lexicons, and since so much language instruction has been migrating to digital platforms, this got his attention.

    It really is important science, because it begs another question: Is the new online classroom in fact all it’s cracked up to be? Or is there something about a computer screen that really does cause a “deterioration in cognitive abilities”? If so, what is the proper place of computer-assisted learning? That’s neuroscience we need to get our heads around ASAP.

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