Without question, the 21st century is an age in which digital technology is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. It’s the digital revolution.
According to the Pew Research Center, the awakening of the 21st century saw nearly half of all adults using the internet regularly, but today – 17 years later - 9 out of 10 adults are regularly connected. Over 95 percent of adults own a cell phone and 77 percent own a smartphone. But phones aren’t the only way we connect. Today, 8 out of 10 U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer, and tablet ownership has increased from 3 percent in 2010 to 51 percent in 2017.
An increasing number of occupations are becoming less manual and more technological. The healthcare industry is one example. Nurses and doctors now spend more time looking at a computer screen (even during patient office visits) than interacting with patients through visual and tactical contact. Education is also morphing away from the use of hardback textbooks to eTextbooks and iPads at every desk.
Multiple concerns have been raised as we plunge deeper into this uncharted digital territory, but they often get swept aside with the newest wave of digital innovation. One voice decided to sound the alarm a little louder than others. In 2012, Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist and psychiatrist, was concerned about the rising number of children and adults with memory and cognitive problems. He published a book titled, Digital Dementia: What We and Our Children are Doing to our Minds. Spitzer suggests the ability to Google information, and store information and multitask with digital devices has reduced the ability to memorize, lowered concentration, and impaired cognitive and learning functions. In a later article published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Spitzer demonstrates how typing impairs reading and writing skills, which further impacts learning and memory.
More recent studies have also begun to delve into the effects of digital technology on cognitive function. In a 2015 study in Computers in Human Behavior, increased reliance on smartphones and computers for accessing information has reduced the need for analytical thinking. When given reasoning problems, those who thought more intuitively and less analytically were also more likely to rely on digital technology for information. Similarly, an article published in Science summarized four studies that suggested people automatically think about where to access information for solving difficult questions rather than recalling information to solve problems. The “Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves,” reducing the need for and impairing our memory skills.
Dementia is the loss of cognitive function and most often involves memory loss, decreased problem-solving skills, behavioral changes, and confusion. Various causes and forms of dementia exist, but the term is not exclusively used for a pathological condition. Instead, it is used to describe a set of symptoms. Therefore, the term “digital dementia” has surfaced to explain the memory loss and decrease in cognitive skills associated with increased digital use, based primarily on anecdotal (but growing) evidence.
South Korea has spearheaded the research into digital dementia as they boast of having the highest rates of digital use among its citizens. Dr. Byun Gi-Wun, a South Korean expert in cognitive problems is concerned that “heavy reliance on smartphones creates an imbalance in brain development which leads to the left side of the brain becoming overstimulated while the right side suffers and becomes relatively stunted. Heavy use of smartphones engages the left brain at the expense of the right, leading to deterioration of right side-leaning cognitive abilities and symptoms of ‘digital dementia,’ which include loss of memory, short attention span and problems regulating emotion.”
Currently, a large cohort study that seeks to investigate an association between technology use in secondary education children and cognitive or behavioral development is in progress. Study of Cognition and Mobile Phone (SCAMP) will be the largest study in the world to address the issue of technology and cognition. Conducted by the Imperial College of London, this study is focusing its attention on the potential impact of electromagnetic radiation on language understanding, attention, planning, and memory. The results could provide yet another reason for the rise in digital dementia among those with frequent use of digital technology.
The phenomenon of digital dementia is in its infancy, but giving it due diligence only seems appropriate considering the speed at which digital technology is transforming our culture and our lives. Perhaps, its reality will not be as concerning as the initial alarm sounds, but it seems better to investigate the possibility when we can still choose to change the trajectory.
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