Do mobile phones lead to 'digital dementia'?
Tom Stafford, a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield in England, gives his take on the rapidly changing mobile mind.
The Telegraph: Surge in ‘digital dementia’
South Korea has the highest proportion of people with smartphones, 67%. Nearly 1 in 5 use their phone for more than 7 hours in a day, it is reported. Now a doctor in Seoul reports that teenagers are reporting with symptoms more normally found in those with head injury or psychiatric illness. He claims excessive smartphone use is leading to asymmetrical brain development, emotional stunting and could “in as many as 15 per cent of cases lead to the early onset of dementia”.
What they actually did
Details from the news stories are sketchy. Dr Byun Gi-won, in Seoul, provided the quotes, but it doesn’t seem as if he has published any systematic research. Perhaps the comments are based on personal observation?
The Daily Mail quotes an article which reported that 14% of young people felt that their memory was poor. The Mail also contains the choice quote that “[Doctors] say that teenagers have become so reliant on digital technology they are no longer able to remember everyday details such as their phone numbers.”
How plausible is this?
It is extremely plausible that people should worry about their memories, or that doctors should find teenagers uncooperative, forgetful and inattentive. The key question is whether our memories, or teenagers' cognitive skills, are worse than they ever have been – and if smart phones are to blame for this. The context for this story is a recurring moral panic about young people, new forms of technology and social organisation.
For a long time it was TV, before that it was compulsory schooling (“taking kids out of their natural environment”). When the newspaper became common people complained about the death of conversation. Plato even complained that writing augured the death of memory and understanding). The story also draws on the old left brain-right brain myth, which – despite being demonstrably wrong – will probably never die.
Of course, it is possible that smartphones (or the internet, or TV, or newspapers, or writing) could damage our thinking abilities. But all the evidence suggest the opposite, with year by year and generation-by-generation rises found in IQ scores. One of the few revealing pieces of research in this area showed that people really are more forgetful of information they know can be easily retrieved, but actually better able to remember where to find that information again.
This isn’t dementia, but a completely normally process of relying on our environment to store information for us. You can see the moral panic driving these stories reflected in the use of that quote about teenagers not being able to remember phone numbers. So what! I can’t remember phone numbers any more – because I don’t need to. The only evidence for dementia in these stories is the lack of critical thought from the journalists reporting them.
Vaughan Bell on a media history of information scares.
Christian Jarret on Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die
Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.