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'Digital Dementia'

Left Brain – Right Brain – and the Effects of Excessive Use of Smartphones

Dementia is no laughing matter as I have learned from my own experience with my mom. It is difficult to watch someone you have loved all your life slowly lose the capacity to remember events that occurred long ago and, eventually, even those that occurred the day before. Thus, I use the term reluctantly because it belittles the disease, but it does capture the problem with excessive smartphone use by young adults today.

It all starts with a study by South Korean doctors who have discovered a worrisome pattern they're calling "digital dementia" — an early onset version of the syndrome which they believe is caused by a reliance on digital devices and smartphones.

Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, said repeated use of smartphones threatens to create a neurological imbalance, with the left side of the brain — which controls tasks like reasoning, logic and language — developing at a normal pace, while the right side — which deals with creativity, emotions, concentration and recognition — stalls. 

Won warned that if the right side of the brain is allowed to stagnate, attention span and memory would languish and emotional faculties would become underdeveloped. He said younger people were most at risk because their brains are still growing. "Young people have become so heavily reliant on digital technology that they are no longer able to pay attention to remembering routine details such as their own phone numbers."

Brain researchers have known for long that the two brain hemispheres exhibit a significant degree of what is termed lateralization, in which the left and right sides of the brain exhibit some specialization with regard to functions.

Research has shown that logic, reasoning and language functions such as grammar, vocabulary and literal meaning of words tend to the lateralized to the left hemisphere, especially in right handed individuals. In contrast, other mental functions involving memory, processing of visual, auditory stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, creativity and prosodic language functions such as intonation and accentuation, tend to be lateralized to the right hemisphere.

Damage to the “right brain” has been associated with deficits in ability to concentrate, short attention, memory span, and emotional disturbances, such as depression.

I believe the damage to the right brain also has affected left brain functions because of the inability to concentrate on a task at hand.  I also wonder whether it could be that excessive smartphone use might be blamed, at least in part, for the number of mass killings that have occurred in the U.S, the events fueled by a lack of emotional development that includes empathy for others?

According to recent statistics, the number of people aged between 10 and 19 who use smartphones for more than seven hours daily has increased by 18.4 percent. The statistics indicate that fifteen percent of young people are at risk of developing digital dementia.

South Korea doctors aren't the only ones to raise a cry about digital dementia, however. German neuropsychiatrist Manfred Spitzer has called for an outright ban on digital media in the classroom, arguing that digital technologies are replacing and jeopardizing the brain's ability to perform basic learning functions like reading and writing. 

I am particularly interested in the results of the study because I have long complained about students’ inability to focus in class and being easily attracted. I may have my explanation, at least in part, based on the results of the study. Still, I believe the relative immaturity of young adults today exacerbates the learning-deficit problem.

Younger students may have difficulty learning non-digital lessons in the future. Using digital media in kindergarten or primary school is actually a way of getting children addicted. What's the best way to teach children numbers? Using fingers, not computers, Spitzer said. I agree. The use of fingers and the mind to process basic numerical problems aids the visual learning process. It relies on one’s capacity to process information rather than that of electronic devices.

I think it’s quite clear that nothing will ever change. We all are addicted to these electronic devices. In fact, the problem has become worse from a composition point of view because today kids read too many of their books on line or, perhaps, listen to them while driving. We learn how to write by reading others’ writings and focusing on how they say things, what they say, and why. With digital scrolling, that has become a lost art.

Moreover, we learn how to be emotionally sensitive to the needs of others by interacting with them, face to face, and not through text messages. This is a serious problem in the U.S. and may explain why employers say they can’t find a sufficient number of qualified young adults in the U.S. to fill high-skilled, creative jobs in science and technology.

To me, the only answer is through the parent’s efforts to raise their kids to develop the right brain functions and have them go over the exercises again and again. As the ancient Greeks knew, practice is required to learn a skill and this is true not only of reading, writing, and comprehension, but also of ethical behavior.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 28, 2013