Digital Dementia: Is Technology Braining Our Kids?

A story this week in the Telegraph says that in South Korea, one of the most digitally connected nations in the world, Internet addiction among both adults and children is now developing into the early onset of "digital dementia," where sufferers can no longer remember everyday details like their phone numbers. This deterioration in cognitive abilities is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.

The situation appears to be worsening, with an 18.4% increase in kids between the ages of 10 and 19 who use their smartphones for more than seven hours a day. Similarly, last year a German neuroscientist published a book titled "Digital Dementia" that warned parents and teachers of the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time on a laptop, mobile phone or other electronic device.

The story fails to point out that the brain scans of teenagers in the spasmodic throes of the transition from puberty to adulthood are strikingly similar to those with psychiatric illnesses anyway, but I suppose that addictive attention to screens doesn't help matters. Without medical tests, it's hard to separate what might be "digital dementia" from the general mental instability of teenagers that makes the comic strip “ZITS” so right-on.

I think that not remembering phone numbers is a function of having them in your always-on contact list (thus not having to recall them each time you dial -- at least, that's my excuse) -- and why recall an address when Google can get you there turn by (often wrong) turn? Surely not to send letters, since no one under 75 writes them anymore. I am pretty sure none of my kids has ever set foot in a post office (or put anything in those little blue slotted boxes here and there around town.)

The worst thing about this whole story will be that one geeky kid in the entire world will bump into it accidentally while looking for a video porn site -- and in a few viral days, every kid in America will start using "digital dementia" as an excuse for not having started (or comprehended) the assigned English class summer reading, or for leaving the hybrid running in the driveway overnight.

Our family just returned from a trip where only Mom, who was going on to Cannes anyway, had a functioning world phone. When we stopped for a meal, the poor woman was encircled by snarling animals vying to "borrow" her phone. Two wanted to text their girlfriends, and one wanted to update her Facebook page. "Today we are in… hey, Dad, what is this place again?" In 10 days, not a single postcard was written, sent or even bought as a souvenir.

On the days we parents took our laptops to restaurants to take advantage of WiFi that was infinitely better than on the ship that carried us port to port, the kids looked at us kind of like the dog does when we are having dinner, except they didn't lick their chops or moan (as much). If they thought sitting at our feet and wagging their tails would have moved them up the line, they surely would have.

Once home again, one of the kids stays glued to her iPad, the other two wander the house, heads down, focused intently on texting -- getting stupider by the minute, according to these studies. Nothing said in their direction, such as: "The house is on fire and we need to get the dog and run for our lives" gets any reaction beyond "Just a sec...."

Actually, this is a serious matter that I am told by Adam Boettiger is reliably addressed in "The Shallows": "Our kids are the first generation to be raised on video games and mobile devices as babysitters rather than television as we were, so there is a train of thought that says that our kids will experience these symptoms at much younger ages than we who have worked in the industry did or do, due to interactivity during the years that their brains were and are still developing," Adam told me in an email.

I am thankful that technology was not advanced enough for my kids to have an iPad as a babysitter, or that they demanded mobile phones when they were five or six years old. But if this sounds like you, I would pay closer attention to the research in this area and start to plan for screen-free blocks of time.

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