Doctors Warn Smartphones Cause ‘Digital Dementia’

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South Korean doctors warn smartphones cause ‘digital dementia’ (Digital Journal, June 24, 2013):

South Korean doctors have found that increasing use of smartphones among young Koreans has led to a surge in incidence of “digital dementia” characterized by deterioration of cognitive abilities and symptoms found in people who have suffered head injury.

According to Dr. Byun Gi-won, a South Korean expert in cognitive problems related to computer and smartphone usage at the Balance Brain Center in Seoul, the high incidence of digital dementia in Korea is a side effect of the fact that the country has one of the world’s best developed and fastest networks with a very high rate of usage of digital devices by its citizens.

The South Korean Joongang Daily reports that Internet addiction had emerged among both adult and young Koreans as early as the late 1990s. Recent trends show that Internet addiction is giving way to iPhone or smartphone addiction.

Cases of “digital dementia” associated with smartphone addiction are characterized by memory deficits, attention disorders and emotional flattening among young people who spend too much time using a gaming device, web searching, texting, and multimedia on smartphones.

The Telegraph reports that according to recent studies, 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 hemisphere has been associated with deficits in ability to concentrate, short attention, memory span, and emotional disturbances, such as depression.

Byun Gi-won told the Joongang Daily Newspaper: “Overuse of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain.”

He said that heavy reliance on smartphones creates an imbalance in brain development which leads to the left side of the brain becoming overstimulated while the right side suffers and becomes relatively stunted. Heavy use of smartphones engages the left brain at the expense of the right, leading to deterioration of right side-leaning cognitive abilities and symptoms of “digital dementia,” which include loss of memory, short attention span and problems regulating emotion.

Gi-won said: “Heavy [technology] users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped.”

Researchers believe that young people are at a higher risk of developing “digital dementia” because their brains are still developing. If the left side of the brain develops properly while the right side is stunted it can lead to serious cognitive problems as the child develops.

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. According to The Telegraph, the statistics indicate that fifteen percent of young people are at risk of developing digital dementia.

A UCLA study found that about 14 percent of young people aged between 18 and 39 complained of memory problems.

Korean doctors warn that increasing use of smartphones and similar digital devices will lead to increase in incidence of digital dementia. Doctors say the problem is serious because dementia is generally resistant to treatment once it has developed.

This is not the first time that digital devices have been blamed for serious medical, social and psychological problems. Previous research found that decreased real-life social interaction by people addicted to the Internet could lead to severe personality disorders.

Doctors advise young people and parents to exercise moderation in the use of digital devices, noting that researchers still have a lot to learn about the long term side effects of heavy use of smartphones and similar devices.

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