Sunday, June 30, 2013

Digital Dementia-- Is It For Real?


Roland's my closest friend. I call his cell phone at least once a day. But I have no idea what his number is. I press a button on my cell and his phone is automatically "dialed." If I lost my phone, I wouldn't be able to contact him. Oh, wait, I could. All I would have to do is go to my computer and type in the first 3 or 4 letters of his screen name and his e-mail address would come up. If I was at another computer, though, I wouldn't be able to e-mail him either. I only know the first 3 or 4 letters of his rather complicated screen name. Everything comes up kind of automatically online. It's so convenient... but I remember nothing. I hope it's making room in my brain to remember more important things. I refuse to get GPS for my car-- even though the crooked Toyota dealer made me pay for it anyway-- because I don't want to forget how to get from place to place.

Doctors in South Korea are talking about this as digital dementia... but they're diagnosing it as an epidemic among teenagers, not people my age.
South Korea is one of the most digitally connected nations in the world and the problem of internet addiction among both adults and children was recognised as far back as the late 1990s.

That is now developing into the early onset of digital dementia-- a term coined in South Korea-- meaning a deterioration in cognitive abilities that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.

"Over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain," Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, told the JoongAng Daily newspaper.

"Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped," he said.

The right side of the brain is linked with concentration and its failure to develop will affect attention and memory span, which could in as many as 15 per cent of cases lead to the early onset of dementia.

Sufferers are also reported to suffer emotional underdevelopment, with children more at risk than adults because their brains are still growing.

The situation appears to be worsening, doctors report, with the percentage of people aged between 10 and 19 who use their smartphones for more than seven hours every day leaping to 18.4 per cent, an increase of seven per cent from last year.

More than 67 per cent of South Koreans have a smartphone, the highest in the world, with that figure standing at more than 64 per cent in teenagers, up from 21.4 per cent in 2011, according to the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning.

Dr Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist, published a book titled Digital Dementia in 2012 that warned parents and teachers of the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time on a laptop, mobile phone or other electronic devices.

Dr Spitzer warned that the deficits in brain development are irreversible and called for digital media to be banned from German classrooms before children become "addicted."
Spitzer is a psychiatrist at Ulm University and, to put it mildly, he's no fan of the Internet. "Avoid digital media... they truly do make us fat, dumb, aggressive, lonely, sick and unhappy." He compares teaching children to use online media to serving them beer, and providing computers in elementary schools to heroin dealers getting their users hooked. Not everyone agrees. In fact, children are performing significantly better on IQ tests now than in previous generations. The astonishing upward trend in IQ levels is known as the "Flynn effect," named after American political scientist James Flynn, who published a new book last year, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century, in which he seeks to elucidate this phenomenon. Flynn's findings refute the claims of those who warn that humanity is getting dumber. We're "amusing ourselves to death," American media theorist and critic Neil Postman argued in a 1985 book of the same name. Postman blamed television for a decline in cognitive skills. Since then, however, the average IQ in the US has risen by nearly 10 points.
Spitzer says the term "digital dementia" originated with Korean scientists. More likely, though, it simply comes from a survey one web portal conducted five years ago among its users, who indicated among other things that they were hardly able to remember telephone numbers anymore.

Additionally, Spitzer previously made many of the same claims verbatim in his 2005 book Vorsicht Bildschirm! (Caution, Screen!) Since then, the average German IQ has risen by about 2 points.

Around 1900, there was a similar fashion for hysterical warnings of "nervous disorders" and the weakening of the brain supposedly triggered by technological advances. It was in this environment that a Parisian researcher developed the first intelligence test in 1905.

Then, exactly 100 years ago, Hamburg-based psychologist William Stern invented the "intelligence quotient," or IQ. In the fall of 1917, with Europe at war, Stern received an assignment to select 1,000 out of 20,000 Hamburg children for advanced lessons at school. The researcher chose not to rely on IQ scores but, rather, to conduct intensive observation of the students in the classroom-- he knew the limits of his own tests.

The informative value of IQ tests has been debated ever since their invention. Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, for example, followed a group of 1,500 gifted children over several decades. The majority of them did not grow up to be new Einsteins, but rather led entirely normal lives and did not even perform above average in their professional lives. It turns out that self-confidence and perserverance, as well as the way a person is raised, have just as important an effect as IQ does.
The fact that people are scoring progressively better on IQ tests, Flynn says, doesn't represent better cognitive skills so much as it expresses a modern, scientifically influenced way of thinking that can better take hypothetical and abstract situations into account. "In pre-modern societies, people thought in a more practical and concrete way," the researcher explains. In his book, he provides an anecdote to illustrate this point. As a child, he writes, he once asked his father: "But what if your skin turned black?" He just answered: "That is the dumbest thing you have ever said-- who has ever heard of anyone's skin turning black?"

This is the only way to explain the fact that the average IQ in Kenya is just 72-- but is increasing by an enormous one point per year. "If I conduct an IQ test and ask a shepherd, 'What connects a lion and a lamb?' he might say, 'The lion eats the lamb,'" Flynn says. "The correct answer on the test, though, is: 'Both are mammals.'"

Thinking is "plastic" and adapts to the environment, Flynn adds. From generation to generation, children find it easier to organize symbols, create categories and think abstractly.

Flynn thus calls for "sociological imagination" when it comes to interpreting data on human intelligence. In many countries, for example, girls have caught up with boys in IQ tests-- an effect of being treated equally. And African-Americans score worse than white Americans only when they grew up under difficult circumstances. For example, no difference was found among the children of black US soldiers living in Germany.

In the 1990s, it seemed like the Flynn effect was gradually coming to a standstill, prompting questions about whether a maximum level had perhaps been reached. But, to his amazement, Flynn is now discovering that the trend has started up again.

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally-- unlike that of their parents.

"Linguistically, the generations are growing apart," Flynn states. "Young people can still understand their parents, but they can no longer mimic their style of speech. That was different in the past." One possible reason for the change is that today's young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

Flynn says this is a pity-- but no reason to panic. What some have taken for "digital dementia," he explains, is ultimately just children and young people adapting to a world that is faster-paced and strongly influenced by digital media.

For personal reasons, Flynn is far more concerned about an entirely different phenomenon: Everyone's IQ test scores start to slip with advancing age-- and the more intelligent they are to begin with, the faster their results drop. The only thing that can apparently counteract this trend is exercising the brain-- including with the help of modern media.

Last week, a working group under Osvaldo Almeida, an Australian professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, released the results of a long-term study of over 5,500 seniors. The finding: Study participants who used computers had over 30 percent less risk of developing dementia.


Today's Sunday Classics post, "In The Flying Dutchman Wagner shows there's more than one way to get from Act I to Act II and from Act II to Act III," follows at 5pm ET/2pm PT. If I can get it up earlier on the stand-alone Sunday Classics blog, I will. -- Ken

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At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grindr is why all the young gays have no social skills they only talk through their phones and meet through their phones. There is a straight app called plenty of fish and basically my generation and younger has little to no social skills. However, on the flip side it opens up the world to gays where before we had to go to clubs and bars, now we need only look on our phones no matter where we live. For every give there is a take, but the social structure of society is breaking down. What does that mean when it comes to empathy towards one another? People say things on these apps and in text they would never in person.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Howie, I think this digital dementia idea is bullshit. Sure, you rely on the computer for short form of contacting Roland. If that was not a possibility, you'd use another method, even memorization, if needs be. Same for me. It's natural and very sane and time saving to rely on shortcuts for information.


At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes- I think you are absolutely correct.

~I hope it's making room in my brain to remember more important things. I refuse to get GPS for my car-- even though the crooked Toyota dealer made me pay for it anyway-- because I don't want to forget how to get from place to place.~


At 2:48 PM, Blogger Suzan said...


And I was just thinking that you should give me your unused GPS because I can't remember anything anymore let alone where I'm going.

- Geographically demented


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