South Korean doctors have used the term ‘digital dementia’ to describe a deterioration in cognitive abilities that they believe is caused by the overuse of smartphones and games devices. South Korea is one of the most digitally connected countries in the world, where more than 67% of the population had a smartphone in 2013 – including 64% of teenagers; internet addiction has been recognised as a problem there since the late 1990s.
Dr Byun Gi-won from the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul said that heavy users of smartphones and games devices risk under-developing their ability to concentrate, which affects attention and memory span; in up to 15% of cases he believes this could lead to early onset of dementia. Emotional development is also affected, and there is particular concern about the effects on children because their brains are still developing. Over 18% of children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 19 used their smartphones for more than seven hours every day in South Korea in 2013.
While these specific concerns from South Korea are not yet backed by scientific studies, there is a parallel with published research conducted by Dr Bohbot at McGill University in Montreal. She found that the way we use our navigational skills has strong effects on the hippocampus region of the brain, which is also important for memory. Atrophy of the hippocampus leads to cognitive impairment and is linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Human brains are ‘plastic’: they begin to reorganise very quickly in response to the way we use them. Dr Bohbot fears that over-use of GPS navigation tools – such as ubiquitous map apps on smartphones - could lead to a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia. “Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus,” she told an interviewer. “In the next twenty years, I think we’re going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier.”
As digital technologies such as smartphones are still comparatively new and developing rapidly, there is little scientific knowledge about the long-term effects they may have on the brain, whether positive or negative. Long-term effects from smartphone use could potentially affect entire populations as their uptake has been so rapid. Unwanted potential side-effects such as increased risk of dementia are alarming, but may be able to be mitigated by helping people to control their use of technology, for example by limiting the use of elements that are found to be problematic, particularly in the case of children. There may also be wider social questions to be asked about the role of technology, and the relationship that humans have with it.