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October 30, 2014
The monthly journal for independent thought, ethical standards and moral responsibility The international journal for independent thought, ethical standards, moral responsibility,
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Current Concerns  >  2012  >  No 46, 5 November 2012  >  The too frequent use of digital media reduces the mental capacity of our children [printversion]

The too frequent use of digital media reduces the mental capacity of our children

Psychiatrist and brain researcher Manfred Spitzer warns parents and educators

by Dr Rudolf Hänsel, qualified psychologist, Lindau/Germany

The neuroscientist and medical director of the Psychiatric University Hospital Ulm, Professor Manfred Spitzer, met with intense press coverage about his new best-seller “Digitale Demenz. Wie wir uns und unsere Kinder um den Verstand bringen” (Digital dementia. How we drive us and our children mad) and his trenchant theses. Referring to many neurological findings and supplementing new findings Spitzer reinforces in his book previous research of reputable media experts saying that the too frequent use of the Internet can make people dumb.  He never denigrated juvenile and adult Internet users however. Reacting to the spiteful attacks by the press, he said in an interview: “I do not pathologize but I state: Where there are effects there are also risks and side effects.”1 However, Spitzer does not just express warnings; he also shows what parents, teachers and politicians can do to protect our youth.

That early childhood and frequent television viewing, the hours spent at playing computer and violent video games, the incessant phone calls and SMS-texting, the reckless dissemination of personal feelings, thoughts and photos on networking sites may have a negative impact on feelings, thoughts, behavior and social contacts of children and adolescents is not a new insight. Serious media scientist and responsible educators, juvenile judges or sorely tried parents of internet-addicted teenagers have been drawing people’s attention to the adverse effects of excessive media use for two decades now. The neurobiologist Manfred Spitzer has collected the scientific evidence on this subject in his new book, easy to understand and supplemented by some more recent neurophysiologic research. He also publicly sounded the alarm with his warning that the too frequent use of digital media drives us and our children mad.

From digital media to digital dementia

At the beginning of his book, Spitzer quotes the American publisher and Internet expert Nicholas Carr, who described his negative experience with the Internet as follows: “And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information in the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. [...] When I mention my troubles with reading to friends, many say they’re suffering from similar afflictions. The more you use the Web, the more you have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.” (p. 14)
Five years ago, doctors from South Korea, a highly advanced industrial country with probably the highest media coverage ever, discovered with their young adults not only similar phenomena such as the adult intellectuals from the United States had described, but they also discovered memory and attention disorders, emotional flattening and dullness as well as problems in text reading. As these individuals admitted to use computers and the Internet intensely, the doctors established a causal relation and called the cluster of symptoms “digital dementia”.
According to Spitzer the digital media – computers, smart-phones, game consoles and television – do not only change our lives, but they drive us and our children literally “mad”, promoting a process of “mental decline” (dementia). In many chapters, he describes these neurological processes and shows how the structure of the dynamic “information processing system” called brain adapts to the changing needs, how the outsourcing of thoughts on some kind of machinery damages the brain and how this dynamic organ expires when training or input are missing.
When asked what impact this digital world will have in the long run, just half of over 1,000 Internet professionals of an American online survey in late October 2011 made the following pessimistic statement about the future of the Internet and its impact on the mental abilities of the next generation:
“In 2020 the brains of multitasking [doing different activities simultaneously, RH] teens and young adults will be <networked> differently than the brains of people older than 35 years, and this will result in bad and sad consequences. They will hardly be able to remember anything; most of the energy will be spent on exchanging short social messages or on entertainment and diversion from a really deep commitment to the people and to knowledge. They will neither have the basic ability to think, nor to interact face to face with the people around them. Instead, they will depend on the Internet and on mobile devices in a very unhealthy way in order to be able to work at all. In sum, the changes in behavior and thinking among young people in general will lead to negative consequences.” (p. 207) Brave new world of computers!

Media usage from toddler to adolescent

The Annual Report of the German Federal Government Commissioner on Drugs of 22 May 2012 says that in Germany about a quarter million of the 14- to-24-year-old is depending on the Internet, and 1.4 million are considered problematic Internet users. There is a threefold increase in gambling addiction in just five years. Mainly unemployed young men were affected. (p. 7) Our young people, Spitzer says, spend twice as much time on media as on learning. But not only young people are addicted to the digital media. Spitzer refers to the result of a 2007 survey of 729 mothers. At that time “13 percent of the under one-year-old, 20 percent of one-year-olds, 60 percent of two year olds and 89 percent of three-year olds were allowed to watch TV”. (p. 139) The result of Spitzer’s own research is also hard to believe: In Germany “800,000 children in kindergarten age are watching television at 10 pm, by 11 pm there are still 200,000, and even at midnight 50,000 children under six years are still watching TV”. (p. 139) The kids were just copying what their parents demonstrated, says Spitzer.

A TV screen is neither a good babysitter nor a good teacher

“Digital media are detrimental to learning and thus to the mental development of babies!” warns the brain researcher Manfred Spitzer (p. 154). Many scientific studies would show that young children are actively hampered in learning by “Baby TV” and “Baby Einstein DVDs”. A large-scale US study from 2007 concluded: “Infants watching Baby TV or Baby DVDs know less words, they are delayed in the development of their language skills. [...] If a parent read to them on a daily basis, however, it resulted in a positive effect on language development. Even the daily storytelling had a significantly positive effect [...].” (p. 146)
Nevertheless, the television industry has also targeted a new audience in our country in recent years: the baby-TV, a “500 million dollar industry”. (p. 136) No wonder that, according to the current Medical Report 2012 of the German health insurance “BarmerGEK” focusing on “Children‘s Health”, 1.1 million children in Germany up to 14 years – i.e. almost 10 per cent – developmental disorders of speaking and language skills were diagnosed. Among these children, the normal pattern of language acquisition from early stages of development is affected whereas there is no explicit evidence of serious organic damage as the cause of the anomalies can be observed. Most children are affected in the fifth and sixth year: nearly 38 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls.2
Baby TV however does not only impede the mental and language development, but makes also fat as has been shown, and obesity is a serious health risk factor, Spitzer says. (p. 154) Parents should therefore no longer allow international corporations to talk them into watching TV shows and DVDs, which are said to have positive effects on their babies.

Early childhood television viewing, multi-tasking and attention disorders

“Children‘s heads need a rest”, the American computer scientist and “World Wide Web Pioneer” David Gelernter demanded after decades of research about the Internet.3 As early as in 2004, the American pediatrician Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues showed that “television consumption at an early age results in an increased incidence of attention deficit disorder (i.e. loss of self-control) at school age”. (p. 249) A study, published in the journal Pediatrics in the fall of 2011, confirmed this relationship. (pp. 249) Spitzer finds it shameful that the scientific community succeeded as late as  in 2011 to confirm what parents and grandparents had known all along: that children after hours of staring at the children‘s comics channel – e.g. on Sunday morning – were not good for anything, because they had become “tame”. (pp. 250)
According to Spitzer “Multitasking”, doing different activities at the same time or the simultaneous use of multiple media and a related tackling multiple tasks simultaneously leads to an impaired attention and active training of shallowness and ineffectiveness. (p. 222–235) A 15-year-old “multitasker” describes his life as follows: “Via text messages (SMS) I talk constantly with people while I am checking on my emails at the same time, doing homework or playing computer games while I am on phone at the same time.” (p. 223)

Insomnia, depression, addiction and physical consequences

The digitalization of our world does not only have various harmful effects on the mind, but also on the body, Spitzer says. He presents a series of studies showing that insomnia, depression and addiction are extremely dangerous consequences of the use of digital media “whose impact on the overall health development of today’s young generation can hardly be overestimated”. (p. 272)
A physical consequence of addictive behavior – as recent data from brain research in recent years have shown – is that the young are overweight. “Social withdrawal and anxiety are common side effects,” says Spitzer, “a downward spiral develops at whose end there is not only depression and social isolation, but also many physical illnesses concerning the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system (lack of exercise, incorrect sitting posture) up to dementia.” (p. 272) Since children and adolescents “in this country spend the major part of their waking hours on the media, we have to be worried about the expected long-term mental and physical damage.” (p. 273)

Computers and Internet in the classroom

Still, parents are persuaded by the computer industry and its enormous advertising expenses to buy their children a laptop (“A laptop for each student” or “Laptop instead of schoolbag”) because they are said to improve the students’ school performance. However, the opposite is true, and this has actually been known for a long time. Modern information technology, Spitzer says, “leads to more superficial thinking, it distracts and has undesirable side effects, which range from mere disorders to child pornography and violence.” (p. 95) Other serious scientists also see it that way.
Inter alia Spitzer cites a statement of the former American “Internet Guru” Clifford Stoll, who as early as in 1995 compared computers at school with the films shown there in earlier times: “We loved them because we did not have to think for an hour. The teachers loved them because they did not have to teach for an hour, and the parents loved them because it indicated that their school was technically at a high level. But we did not learn anything.” (p. 91). Four years later, Clifford Stoll explained his point of view in his widely acclaimed book “High Tech Heretic. Why Computers Don’t Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian”.
The former president of the American Educational Research Association and Professor of Education at Stanford University, Larry Cuban is also mentioned by Spitzer. Cuban’s book is tellingly entitled “Oversold and Underused” and subtitled “Computers in the classroom”: “Those who advocate the provision of digital media in schools funded by public money,” he claims, “must first provide evidence of positive effects.” (p. 94)
Education, so Spitzer’s conclusion, is the most important factor for a person’s health. (p. 61) Moreover, the foundation for lifelong learning is laid in childhood. Therefore, schools should provide a good education and invest in good teachers instead of laptop classes, because education requires people to whom a relationship can be established.
What is true for schools, also applies in his view to nursery schools. Computers and the Internet do not belong to both of them. “Those who want their children to become mathematician or specialist in information technology”, Spitzer says, “care for finger games instead of laptops in the kindergartens. And anyone who takes the written language serious should plead for more pencils instead of keyboards.” (p. 184)

Media literacy as meaningful as alcohol competence

Asked by a journalist how to become competent in dealing with the media, Spitzer refers to alcohol for comparison: “Not by practice, but by the longest possible abstinence you acquire the healthiest way to deal with it.” [...] “Both make addictive and we do not need them.”1
The slogan “media literacy” suggests to especially insecure parents from socially deprived backgrounds, Spitzer believes, “they would do something good if they invested their scarce money in rapidly obsolescent hardware and software”. (p. 307) They think if they put their child in front of the computer at an early age, the children would not have to endure the hard worker’s fate of their parents. In this case, these parents do not know, “that the new computer at home will hurt their child’s development at school which means so much to them.” (p. 308)

Digital games affect school performance, social contacts and the relationship with parents and friends

If children and young people frequently spend their time with video games played on game consoles or with online role-plays, this will lead without doubt to poorer school performance because there is much less time to do homework or to revise school stuff in the afternoons or weekends. “Children who play video games,” Spitzer writes, “spend 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing their homework compared to children who do not play computer games.” (p. 186) The problem group among players are the boys. Spitzer sees their intellectual skills seriously threatened by video and computer games. (p. 188)
The criminologist Christian Pfeiffer already pointed to this danger in 2004, two years after the school massacre in Erfurt. He spoke of “media neglect” and warned: “Every third boy was threatening to drip off ‘into the trap of TV, the Internet and videogames’”.5 Three years later, he even spoke of the “lost generation of young men.” (p. 188)
Boys are very vulnerable because they increasingly play shooter or killer games whose effects are well-known such as increased violence, apathy towards real violence, social isolation and danger of addiction.6 After the mass murder in Norway the American military psychologist Dave Grossman called these killer games “mass murder simulators”.7 The mad Norwegian gunman admitted to have trained for this planned massacre for a year with the help of killer games.
Spitzer says that unlike the boys girls spend “considerably less time playing video games than boys, and they are less likely to play violent games, and neglect their homework due to the games only half as often as boys do.” (p. 188)
This different free-time behavior concerning the use of digital media means that girls have been achieving better academic qualifications than their peers and male colleagues for quite some time. As for Spitzer especially unemployed young men from poor backgrounds spend the statistically highest number of hours exposed to digital media and therefore face the danger of addiction, media do “not compensate, as is often claimed, but rather reinforce existing inequalities and have anti-social rather than social effects”.8 The psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer therefore demands, “society should most urgently reflect this phenomenon, because it has not yet learned to deal with the resulting problems, which studies in neuroscience have long been piling up.”9
Digital games even have additional problematic effects than the previously mentioned. Hence Spitzer mentions experimental studies and studies on the long-term course of personality development, demonstrating that the increasing use of screen media harm both empathy and social skills of children and young people and change the quality of relationships with family and friends: the attachment to their parents diminishes and the relationship with peers and friends is affected. (pp. 195)

Social Networks: Facebook instead of “face to face”

Of course, the media effects researcher Manfred Spitzer also addresses the effects and side effects of digital social networks in his 367 page volume and he can only report unpleasant facts, which parents and educators should necessarily know and think about. Spitzer’s conclusion at the end of the chapter “Social Networks: Facebook instead of face to face” is to be quoted here at length because of its clarity:
“The internet is full of failing social contacts which range from pretending to be a different person, to cheating and up to the high crime. There is nothing but lies, bullying, fleecing, aggressive campaigning, harassing and defamation to an unbelievable extent! Who wonders that social networks lead primarily to loneliness and depression among young users?
Lack of self-regulation, loneliness and depression are the main stressors of modern society. They cause the death of nerve cells and facilitate the development of dementia in the long run. The replacement of real contacts with people through digital online networks may be connected with a long-term reduction of our kids’ social brain. In the long term there is a risk that Facebook & Co will lead to the shrinkage of our entire social brain. Viewed in this light, it is extremely disturbing that about a billion people are now Facebook users.” (p. 128)

Media consumption in the home to be limited to the minimum

In the last chapter of his book “What has to be done?” Manfred Spitzer stresses again – as in previous chapters – that the digital media are part of our culture, increase our productivity, simplify our lives, and are a great entertainment factor. Therefore, the debate is not about fighting or even abolishing them. (p. 296) But because of the severe impact especially on the younger generation, he advises all parents to limit media consumption to a minimum. He writes: “Avoid the digital media. They really make, as has been shown many times, fat, stupid, aggressive, lonely, sick and unhappy. Limit the dose for children, because this is the only thing that has proven to have a positive effect. Each day a child has spent without digital media, is gained time.” (p. 325) He adds, “This is true for our entire society: We have nothing but the minds of the next generation when it comes to our prosperity and the preservation of our culture. Let us stop them being systematically littered!” (p. 326)
With the Internet world, the founders of social networking as well as the game developers have managed to provide our children with the possibility to seal themselves off from parental access and gain a distinctive feature compared to the adults, a space that they shape according to their own rules. As this space, this Internet world is potentially dangerous for the kids’ mental, spiritual and physical development, parents and educators should understand this insular world of our youth so that they are equals to them in the debate about it. And they should – because it is hard to prohibit to today’s teenagers anything and because nowadays they should be able to handle the computer reasonably to prepare for their future profession – try to introduce their children into the Internet constructively and more or less closely controlled depending on their age. Regarding the use of social networks boys and girls should necessarily be informed about the fact that if they reveal even their tiniest feelings and each part of their bodies to the world, they will become wares. They are commodities sold to the Internet with which the company can make huge profits. And that is not what our youth wants to be.     •

1    www.pressetext.at, Manfred Spitzer: “Internet macht dumm” (Internet drives you mad) from 18.8.2012.
2    www.barmer-gek.de, BARMER GEK Arztreport (doctor’s report) 2012 from 31.1.2012.
3    Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung FAZ, “Kinderköpfe brauchen Ruhe” (children’s heads need a rest) from 19.10.2011.
4    www.pressetext.at, Manfred Spitzer: “Internet macht dumm” (Internet drives you mad)
from 18.8.2012.
5    www.spiegelonline.de, “Ein Drittel der Jungen droht abzurutschen” (One third of the boys in danger to slip off) from 27.4.2004.
6    cf. Hänsel, R. (2011) Game over! Wie Killerspiele unsere Jugend manipulieren. (How killer games manipulate our youth) Berlin 2011.
7    Personal correspondence
8    www.pressetext.at, Manfred Spitzer: “Internet macht dumm” (Internet drives you mad) from 18.8.2012.
9    www.pressetext.at, Manfred Spitzer: “Internet macht dumm” (Internet drives you mad) from 18.8.2012.