Overuse of devices and digital dementia

Young people who spend a lot of time on their devices may not develop empathy or the skills to notice non-verbal cues in a conversation.
Young people who spend a lot of time on their devices may not develop empathy or the skills to notice non-verbal cues in a conversation.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Instead of being enslaved by technology, we can control its use and tap it to our advantage

Mrs Penny Tan, a mother of three children aged 14, 19 and 22, no longer enjoys parenting.

"When they were younger, we'd go cycling and do things together," she said. "Now I can hardly get their attention. They will be taking selfies and catching Pokemon. I'm practically losing them."

She could well be speaking for most parents. Digital devices have infiltrated almost every aspect of life. They have been blamed for causing harmful changes to the brain, such as memory loss.

Brain fitness health expert Gary Small told Mind&Body that the overuse of digital devices has been linked to self-reported memory loss, as a survey done in Hong Kong last year showed.

"We know that technology is changing our lives. My hypothesis is that it is actually changing our brains," he said.

NO-BRAINER

I don't know if the computer is shrinking your brain, but the lack of exercise could be doing so.

DR GARY SMALL, a brain fitness health expert, on people having more control of their brain health than they realise.

Dr Small, a psychiatry professor and director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Longevity Centre at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour in the United States, was giving a talk on brain health here as part of a regional wellness tour with nutrition company Herbalife.

"You'd see some memory issues because of the devices. People are not so aware of things around them because they are stuck to their devices," he said.

What could be detrimental is how the mobile phone has replaced many memory functions of the past. "We don't remember directions because we have a GPS (global positioning system) in our cars. We don't remember appointments as we use our phones for that."

Dr Kristy Goodwin, an Australia-based digital parenting expert, said that an increasing number of teachers in Australia are claiming that children's memory-making skills are declining.

"They say students find it difficult to recall information," she told Mind&Body. "Students are not committing facts to memory as information has become 'cheap'. Instead, they are electing to Google it."

In 2012, German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer coined the term, digital dementia, to describe how the overuse of digital technology is resulting in a serious breakdown of cognitive abilities. It is also the title of his book.

Associate Professor John Wong, head and senior consultant in the department of psychological medicine at National University Hospital, said: "Anecdotally, teenagers and young adults who are involved in heavy digital use and, as a result, neglect conventional learning, can develop new challenges such as memory lapses."

One hypothesis for this is the higher-than-normal microwave absorption during the usage of digital devices, but there is no report demonstrating a causal- effect relationship, he added.

Prof Wong also said that learning done through digital devices entails different approaches. Therefore, the memory encoded for the process could be different from conventional learning approaches.

To date, there is no clear evidence that the use of digital devices can cause structural damage to the brain, said Dr N.V. Ramani, a specialist in neurology and consultant at Raffles Neuroscience Centre.

However, other parts of health are not spared.

Prof Wong said there may be no major breakthrough study on digital dementia but there are many studies on the psychological-social symptom clusters associated with the overuse of digital devices.

According to the American Academy of Paediatrics, the overuse of digital devices can lead to insuffi- cient sleep in children, delays in learning and social skills, as well as obesity and behaviour problems.

Young people who spend a lot of time on their devices will make less face-to-face contact with others. They may not develop empathy or the skills to notice non-verbal cues in a conversation, said Dr Small.

But one can have control over the use of devices. Perhaps what appears to be a breakdown of cognitive function could, in fact, be a new and evolving way of using one's mind.

Memory challenges, said Dr Small, are not necessarily bad. For instance, if people are not using their memory for directions, they can use it for other things.

He advised users to take breaks. "Use your device to remind you to get up and stretch."

In other words, use technology wisely. For instance, some digital games and meditation apps can help improve memory skills, said Dr Small.

With dementia, you cannot prevent it but you can delay it from happening, he said. "People are exercising less if they spend more time at their computers. I don't know if the computer is shrinking your brain, but the lack of exercise could be doing so."

SET SCREEN-TIME LIMITS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Overuse of devices and digital dementia'. Print Edition | Subscribe