Research shows that our growing use of digital devices can affect sleep quality, obesity risk, and aggressive behavior. Now there’s concern that many young people are suffering from “digital dementia,” too.
The term originated in South Korea nearly a decade ago after doctors began seeing young patients with brain-function issues that are more commonly found in aging people or those with conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, or tumors.
More recent research from around the globe supports this finding: At alarming rates, kids raised in the digital age are developing cognitive problems and attention issues and struggling with memory, organization, reasoning, problem-solving, and in-person social communication.
Multitasking and rapidly clicking through websites can contribute to short attention spans and impaired learning, says neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer, MD, PhD, medical director of the Psychiatric Hospital at Germany’s University of Ulm and author of Digitale Demenz. He believes young brains should be allowed to develop with a greater range of use and application than our technology addiction allows.
People are less inclined to memorize things that they can easily search for — the so-called Google Effect — says Yoon Se-Chang, MD, psychiatry professor and doctor at Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea.
While digital dementia can affect anyone, youths might be at higher risk for overuse of devices because the brain is still developing. Spitzer feels so strongly about the issue that he recommends children avoid media consumption until they are 15 to 18 years old.
Technology use is unavoidable, since it’s increasingly employed in classrooms, but it’s never too early to teach the next generation how to use it wisely. Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Spitzer, and other sources.
- Use print media rather than tablets or smartphones for reading to give your child a break from looking at screens. Studies have shown that reading print materials also boosts reading comprehension.
- Practice memorizing things like phone numbers and passwords instead of simply letting technology track them.
- Use puzzles and games, such as chess and Scrabble, that promote real-time problem-solving rather than games that let the computer do the thinking.
- Make sure the entertainment your child is watching is high quality.
- Set screen-time limits.
- Create screen-free zones where no digital technology is allowed — like the dinner table and your child’s bedroom.
- Limit media multitasking — using two or more types of media simultaneously such as listening to a CD while doing homework.
- Turn off the television if no one is watching it since background television can disrupt the quantity and quality of personal interaction.
- Watch media — such as television programs and films — with your child and discuss it afterward to develop critical thinking about media.
- Ensure your child gets enough outdoor play and physical exercise.
- Allow for unstructured playtime, which is critical for learning problem-solving skills and fostering creativity.
- Develop creativity by offering your child musical instruments, art supplies, origami, or physical toys that spark their imagination.
- Encourage your child to develop hobbies that aren’t related to digital media — such as stamp collecting, bird watching, skateboarding, acting, dancing, writing, and jewelry making.