I read a report recently of a new ailment that seems to be afflicting young people around the world, though the term originated in South Korea: digital dementia. What is that exactly? Well, according to the South Korean doctors who coined the term, and as reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph, it is “a deterioration in cognitive abilities that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.” (Click here for the article). What causes this deterioration? An overuse of technology like smart phones and gaming devices. The article cites Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, as saying that the overuse of such devices actually “hampers the balanced development of the brain.”
According to the reports out of South Korea more than 18 percent of Koreans between the ages of 10 and 19 are using their phones more than seven hours per day. South Korea is considered to be the most technologically-connected nation in the world, and more than 64% of Korean teenagers have a smart phone, a number that tripled from 2011 to 2013. The overuse of these devices is causing poor development in the right side of the brain, which is where concentration occurs. Doctors speculate that this could lead to the onset of actual dementia in 15% of those impacted.
South Korea is not the only place where technology is overused, of course. The article in The Telegraph references a book entitled Digital Dementia written in 2012 by Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist. As best I can tell from a quick search on Amazon this book is not available in English, so I have not read it and am unlikely to be able to do so in the near future, but the article in The Telegraph reports that Spitzer warns that the damage caused by the overuse of electronic devices is irreversible, and he has called for banning digital media from German classrooms.
I can appreciate the good doctor’s position, but I do not think banning technology is the answer–not in classrooms, at least. Technology is a tool that allows teachers to do some wonderful things in their classrooms–things that were unthinkable even when I was in high school (which was not all that long ago really). I think a bit of caution on the part of parents is wise. I am surely not the only one who has wondered about the wisdom of parents equipping their pre-adolescent children with phones that cost hundreds of dollars, can take crystal clear digital pictures and have instant connectivity to the Internet. There is simply no need. Even worse, though, is when those same parents allow their children to use the device whenever they want, and for as long as they want. Don’t even get me started on cell phone etiquette! Forget digital dementia; maybe we should be on the look out for the complete loss of muscles in every part of the body but the thumbs when people are texting each other from fifteen feet away!
So where does the U.S. stand in this coming digital disaster? According to the March 2013 report from the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 78% of U.S. teenagers (ages 12 to 17) have cell phones, with 47% owning smart phones. That means, the report states, that 37% of all U.S. teens have smart phones, up from 23% in 2011–a significant increase, but not nearly the tripling that occurred in South Korea. Yet, 74% of U.S. teens say they access the Internet on cell phones or other mobile devices at least occasionally, and 25% of teens say they are “cell-mostly” users of the Internet–a number significantly higher than the 15% of adults who identify themselves as such. A finding that I found particularly troubling given the predators that are out there is that a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys report being cell-mostly Internet users–and while 71% of teens who access the Internet on a home computer say they do so on a device they share with other family members, that is highly unlikely to be the case with those who use the Internet primarily via cell phone. (If you want to read the entire Teens and Technology 2013 report you can do so here).
So, what is my point? Well, first of all, I think the term “digital dementia” is a bit silly. I think the last thing we need is another label for mental health professionals to slap on teenagers (or adults) who are basically lacking in common sense and self control. At the same time, I think there are legitimate concerns over the amount of time teenagers are spending on digital devices. I would strongly encourage parents to limit both the amount of time their children and teens have access to cell phones and other digital devices and to seriously consider whether or not their children and teens need smart phones or cell phone access to the Internet. My gut instinct is that there are very few times parents will find that their children and teens do need such devices. That said, though, I feel just as strongly that prohibiting the use of cell phones and other tech devices by children and teens is equally unhealthy. We live in a world where technology is ever-present, and that is not going to go away. Effective parenting will involve training and equipping children to exercise self control and discernment in both how to spend money (hundreds of dollars on a phone that is basically a mini computer is seldom justifiable) and how to use technology in a safe, healthy, and God-honoring manner. Parents need to take to heart their God-given responsibility to teach and train their children, and they need to take to heart Psalm 37:30, which in the New Living Translation reads, “The godly offer good counsel; they teach right from wrong.”