Digital Dementia

Road makers used to get housemaid’s knee. According to Bram Bakker, it could well be that children are now in danger of developing housemaid’s knee of the brain through the excessive use of digital appliances. 

In a few weeks the Dutch translation of the book ‘Digital Demenz’ (Digital Dementia) by German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer will be published in the Netherlands. The book was a big hit in Germany and, all things being equal, the book will become a best seller here, too. The subject alone – the worrying effects of all manner of digital appliances on our brain – merits a large audience.


This paper’s science supplement recently carried an article on the same subject. The opening of yet another Steve Jobs school is being welcomed enthusiastically by many but whether this is a rational emotion is open to doubt.


In his book, Spitzer cites a great deal of scientific research, the overriding conclusion of which seems to be that replacing teachers with computers leads to significantly lower learning results in our children. Although it is too early to come to iron-clad conclusions where the use of tablets and notebooks in our schools is concerned, the evidence that children aren’t benefiting from it already looks fairly convincing. We have known for quite a long time that watching television does not boost school test results. We also know that computer gaming gets in the way of doing home work and enjoying a good night’s rest.



Bad knees


Years ago, a person who decided to become a road maker would know his career choice would probably result in bad knees. And, sure enough, after some 25 years of paving his knees would give out.


Would it be illogical to consider that our children’s brains are being similarly excessively taxed? We don’t know the extent to which computers and the internet affect the brain, but if there’s one thing Spitzer makes clear it’s that we would do well to worry. Our pervading use of things like iPads is proof of a nonchalance we cannot really afford. And that is separate from the link between the lack of exercise due to computer use and the rise of obesity among the young.



But the main problem is that all these appliances are not making us any cleverer. ‘Copy and paste’ is even less beneficial than simply copying a word using a pen.





What is making this issue more complicated still are the enormous underlying business interests: the powerful computer industry wants to sell as many appliances as possible and it doesn’t really care what they are being used for. The fact that children prefer to use the computer to play games or go to websites inappropriate to their age and development doesn’t interest the producers of all those lovely smartphones, tablets and notebooks one bit. The fast food chains contributed to the world-wide obesity epidemic in much the same way.


People who have a vested interest will not want to know about Spitzer’s conclusions. Pollster Maurice de Hond wrote: ‘Only four percent of all letters are still written by hand. It would be much better to teach children to type with ten fingers without looking at the key board, at least it’s a skill they can use.’ If de Hond had bothered to look it up he would have known that learning to write by hand is still a very valuable developmental skill, and one which we should protect and encourage.



No one will deny that technology is a wonderful thing. We would be well-advised, however, to use it in small doses.


Now that technology allows us to investigate the brain as we use, for instance, the social media, it also becomes clear that too much technology use should carry a health warning. It’s a fascinating paradox that we will have to deal with.



Bram Bakker is a psychiatrist.


This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant.










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