Doctors in South Korea are sounding the alarm to an increase in patients they are seeing who exhibit a decline in cognitive abilities which are “more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness,” according to an article printed in the U.K. newspaper, The Telegraph, and reported in WORLD magazine (07.27.13).
What is the source of this “irreversible damage” as German neuroscientist and brain researcher, Manfred Spitzer, has stated? The overuse of smartphones and other digital devices. It is being called “digital dementia” and it is believed to be the result of the under-use by children with still-developing brains of the right side of the brain where concentration occurs. Indeed, 18% of South Korean youths, ages 10 to 19, claim to use their smartphones more than seven hours a day!
Few would deny that digital and media technologies have improved our lives in many ways, but there are those urging parents to use caution when equipping their children with digital toys, games, computers, and smartphones literally from infancy. Take for example the thousands of apps aimed at children (from learning games to cartoons) or Fischer Price’s Apptivity Cases and Apptivity Gyms (for babies who can’t even sit up yet). In fact a 2012 survey conducted by the U.K. supermarket chain, Asda, and reported by ABC News, found that smartphones are replacing pacifiers, soft toys, and bottles as the soother of choice for fussing children (27% to 25, 21, and 9%, respectively). Of the 1650 mothers surveyed, 40% claimed to limit digital device use to 10 minutes, but fully 10% admitted to allowing their children play with their phones for up to two hours at a time! Spitzer warns that “digital media are detrimental to learning and thus to the mental development of babies,” even warning against delayed language development by users of Baby TV or the Baby Einstein DVD’s.
Other concerns in our digital age include increased childhood obesity as well as a lessening capacity for youth to make contingency plans. Where people of a “certain age” have grown up making plans like: “If we get split up, where should we meet?” “If x is unavailable, should I look for something else?” “If I have car troubles, I plan to do x, y, and z.” Youth who have grown up connected to their digital devices subconsciously make the assumption that an instant answer can always be found at their fingertips if Plan A doesn’t work out. This, of course, works only if the person one means to call can be reached in the moment of crisis.
Spitzer warns against the pressure to provide “media literacy.” I know even in the private school where I teach, we’re quite concerned that parents are aware of our use of technology in the classroom. We want parents to put their minds at ease that even in our small school, their child will receive access to current technology. However, Spitzer believes that the idea of “media literacy” suggests to especially insecure parents from socially deprived backgrounds that “they would do something good if they invested their scarce money in rapidly obsolescent hardware and software”. What many parents fail to realize is that “the new computer at home will hurt their child’s development at school.” In other words, what they so desperately want for their child, competitive mental development and acuity, they lose by such a heavy reliance on digital media. Where American schools are spending more and more of their budgets to equip their classrooms with the latest and greatest digital devices (ex: individual laptops or IPads for all), Spitzer is lobbying to have them removed from German classrooms.