Too much use of digital media reduces the mental performance of our children

Psychiatrist and brain researcher Manfred Spitzer warns parents and educators

The neuroscientist and medical director of the Psychiatric University Hospital Ulm, Professor Manfred Spitzer, solved this problem with his new bestseller "Digital Dementia. How we are depriving ourselves and our children of their minds" and his pointed theses caused a fierce press response. In his book, Spitzer has already discovered by serious media scientists that the frequent use of the Internet can make people stupid, underpinned by many neurological findings and supplemented by new

findings. He has never denigrated young and adult Internet users himself. He replied to the hateful attacks of the press in an interview: "I don't pathologize, but I find out: Where there are effects, there are risks and side effects". (1) But Spitzer not only warns, he also points out what parents, teachers and politicians can do to protect our youth. The fact that early childhood and frequent television consumption, hours of playing computer and killer games, continuous telephoning and texting with mobile phones, the carefree dissemination of personal feelings, thoughts and photos in social networks can lead to negative effects on the feelings, thoughts, behaviour and social contacts of children and young people is not a new insight. Serious media scientists and responsible educators, juvenile court judges or parents of internet addicts who have been suffering for about two decades now have been pointing out the undesirable consequences of excessive media use. The neurobiologist Manfred Spitzer has summarized the previous scientific findings on this topic in his new book in a way that is easy to understand, supplemented them with newer brain physiological research results and publicly sounded the alarm with his warning that the too frequent use of digital media is depriving us and our children of their intellect.

Digitale Demenz von Manfred Spitzer

From digital media to digital dementia

At the beginning of his book Spitzer quotes the American journalist and Internet expert Nicholas Carr, who describes his negative experiences with the Internet as follows: "The Internet seems to me to destroy my ability to concentrate and contemplate. My mind now expects to receive information in exactly the way it is delivered through the Net: In the form of a rapidly moving stream of small particles (...)
My friends say the same thing: the more they use the net, the more they have to fight to concentrate on writing longer sections". (p. 14) Doctors from South Korea, an ultra-modern industrialized country with probably the highest mediatization of all, five years ago found among their young adults not only phenomena similar to those described by the adult intellectual from the USA, but also memory and attention disorders, emotional flattening and dulling, and problems reading texts. Since those affected stated that they used computers and the Internet very intensively, the doctors established a causal connection and called the clinical picture "digital dementia". According to Spitzer, the digital media - computers, smartphones, game consoles and television - are not only changing our lives, but they are also literally "driving us and our children crazy," promoting a process of "mental descent" (dementia). In many chapters he describes this neurological process and shows how the structure of the dynamic "information processing system" of the brain adapts to changing requirements, how the outsourcing of thinking to machines damages the brain and how this dynamic organ decays in the absence of training or input. When asked what the long-term impact of this digital world will be, nearly half of over 1000 Internet experts in an American online survey conducted at the end of October 2011 considered the following pessimistic statement about the future of the Internet and its consequences for the intellectual abilities of the next generation to be true: "By 2020, the brains of multitasking teenagers and young adults (doing different jobs simultaneously, R.H.) will be 'wired' differently than the brains of people over 35 years of age, and this will have an overall nasty and sad effect. They can't remember anything, spend most of their energy exchanging short social messages, entertaining and distracting from a really deep preoccupation with people and insights. They don't have the ability to think fundamentally, nor do they have the ability to truly commune face to face. Rather, they depend in a very unhealthy way on the Internet and mobile devices to function at all. In sum, the changes in behaviour and thinking of young people in general have negative effects." (p. 207) Beautiful new computer world!

Media usage times from baby to adolescence

Der Jahresbericht der Suchtbeauftragten der Bundesregierung vom 22. Mai 2012 führt auf, dass in Deutschland etwa eine viertel Million der 14- bis 24-Jährigen internetabhängig ist und 1,4 Millionen als problematische Internetnutzer gelten. Das ist eine Verdreifachung der Spielsucht innerhalb von nur fünf Jahren.
Betroffen seien vor allem arbeitslose junge Männer. (S. 7) Unsere Jugendlichen, so Spitzer, verbringen täglich doppelt so viel Zeit mit Medien als mit dem gesamten Unterricht. Aber nicht nur Jugendliche sind den digitalen Medien verfallen. Spitzer verweist auf das Ergebnis einer Umfrage bei 729 Müttern aus dem Jahr 2007. Danach durften schon damals „13 Prozent der unter Einjährigen, 20 Prozent der Einjährigen, 60 Prozent der Zweijährigen und 89 Prozent der Dreijährigen fernsehen". (S. 139) Auch das Resultat einer eigenen Recherche Spitzersist kaum zu glauben: In Deutschland sitzen „um 22 Uhr noch 800000 Kinder im Kindergartenalter vor dem Fernseher, um 23 Uhr sind es noch 200000, und selbst um Mitternacht schauen noch 50000 Kinder unter sechs Jahren fern". (S. 139) Die Kinder würden eben das nachahmen, was ihnen ihre Eltern vormachen, resümiert Spitzer.The annual report of the Federal Government's Commissioner for Addiction of 22 May 2012 states that in Germany about a quarter of a million 14 to 24-year-olds are Internet-dependent and 1.4 million are considered problematic Internet users. This is a threefold increase in gambling addiction within just five years.
The main victims are unemployed young men. (p. 7) According to Spitzer, our young people spend twice as much time a day on media than on teaching as a whole. But not only young people are addicted to digital media. Spitzer refers to the result of a survey of 729 mothers in 2007, according to which even then "13 percent of one-year-olds, 20 percent of one-year-olds, 60 percent of two-year-olds and 89 percent of three-year-olds were allowed to watch television". (p. 139) The result of Spitzers' own research is also hard to believe: In Germany, "at 10 p.m., 800,000 kindergarten-age children still sit in front of the television, at 11 p.m., it is still 200,000, and even at midnight, 500,000 children under the age of six watch television". (p. 139) Spitzer sums up: "The children are imitating what their parents are doing to them.

A screen is neither a good babysitter nor a good teacher

"Digital media are detrimental to learning and thus to the mental development of babies," warns brain researcher Manfred Spitzer (p. 154). Many scientific studies would prove that small children are actively hindered in learning by "Baby-TV" and "Baby-Einstein-DVDs". A large-scale American study from 2007 came to the following conclusion: "Toddlers who watch baby TV or baby DVDs know significantly fewer words and are therefore delayed in their language development. (...) On the other hand, if one parent read aloud daily, there was a positive effect on language development. The daily telling of stories also had a significant positive effect (...)". (p. 146) Despite this, the television industry in our country has been tapping into a new target group for some years now: baby television, a "500 million dollar industry". (p. 136) It comes as no surprise that, according to the current "Arztreport 2012" of the German health insurance company "BarmerGEK", 1.1 million children in Germany up to 14 years of age - i.e. almost 10 percent - were diagnosed with developmental disorders of speech and language with the focus on "child health". In these children, the normal pattern of language acquisition is impaired from an early stage of development, with no explicit evidence of serious organic damage as the cause of the observed disorders. Children in their fifth and sixth year of life are most frequently affected: almost 38 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls. (2)Baby television not only hampers mental and linguistic development, but has also been shown to make people fat, with Spitzer also stating that obesity is a serious health risk factor. (p. 154) Parents should therefore not be persuaded by international companies to watch TV programmes and DVDs that allegedly have positive effects on their babies.

Early Childhood Television Consumption, Multitasking and Attention Disorders

"Children's heads need peace," demands David Gelernter, an American computer scientist and "World Wide Web pioneer", after decades of research work with the Internet. (3)

As early as 2004, the American paediatrician Dimitri Christakisand his colleagues were able to show "that television consumption in early childhood leads to an increased occurrence of attention disorders (i.e. loss of self-control) at school age". (p. 249) A study published in the Pediatrics journal in autumn 2011 confirmed this connection. (p. 249f.) Spitzer finds it shameful that science was not able to confirm until 2011 what parents and grandparents have known for a long time: that children can no longer be used for anything after hours of staring at comics in the children's channel - e.g. on Sunday mornings - because they are completely "weird". (p. 250f.)

According to Spitzer, "multitasking", the simultaneous performance of different activities or the simultaneous use of several media and the associated simultaneous performance of several tasks, also leads to disturbed attention and to active training of superficiality and ineffectiveness. (p. 222-235) A 15-year-old "multitasker" describes his everyday life as follows: "I talk to people constantly via text messages (SMS), look at my e-mails at the same time, do homework or play computer games while I am on the phone at the same time. (S. 223)

Insomnia, Depression, Addiction & Physical Consequences

According to Spitzer, the digitalization of our world not only has many harmful effects on the mind, but also on the body. He presents a series of studies which show that insomnia, depression and addiction are extremely dangerous effects of the consumption of digital media, "whose significance for the overall health development of the still young generation can hardly be overestimated". (p. 272) A physical consequence of addictive behaviour - according to recent data from brain research in recent years - is obesity. "Social retreat and fears are frequent side effects;" says Spitzer, "a downward spiral is developing at the end of which not only depression and social isolation stand, but also many physical illnesses, for example of the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system (lack of exercise, incorrect sitting) and dementia. (p. 272) Since children and adolescents "in Switzerland spend most of their waking hours with the media every day, one has to think about the mental and physical damage that can be expected in the long term." (S 273)

Computer and Internet use in the classroom: Too much promised and too little used

Parents are still being persuaded by the computer industry to buy their children a laptop ("A laptop for every student" or "Laptop instead of satchels") with enormous advertising effort because it would help them improve their school performance. The opposite is the case, and we have known this for a long time. According to Spitzer, modern information technology "leads to more superficial thinking, distracts people and has undesirable side effects ranging from mere disturbances to child pornography and violence". Spitzer quotes, among other things, an interview statement by the former American "Internet guru" Clifford Stoll, who already in 1995 compared computers in school with the films shown there earlier: "We loved them because we didn't have to think for an hour. The teachers loved her because they didn't have to give lessons for an hour, and the parents loved her because it indicated that her school was technically up to date. But we didn't learn anything." (S. 91). Four years later, Clifford Stoll explained in his highly acclaimed book "Log out. Why computers have nothing to look for in the classroom and other high-tech heresies" elaborated his point of view.

Also the former president of the American Association for Teaching Research and Professor of Education at Stanford University Larry Cuban mentions Spitzer. His book is entitled "Too much promised and too little used" with the subtitle "Computer in the classroom": "Anyone who advocates the provision of digital media in schools with public funds", he demands, "must first prove the positive effects. (p. 94) According to Spitzer's conclusion, education is the most important factor for a person's health. (p. 61) And the basis for lifelong learning is laid in childhood. Therefore, schools should provide good education and invest in good teachers instead of in laptop classes, because education needs people with whom a relationship is built. What applies to schools also applies to kindergartens, in his view. Computers and the Internet would not have been lost in either. "Anyone who wants their children to become mathematicians or specialists in information technology," says Spitzer, "should take care of finger games instead of laptops in kindergartens. And those who take the written language seriously should plead for pencils rather than keyboards". (S. 184)

Media competence as meaningful as alcohol competence

When asked by a journalist how to become competent in dealing with the media, Spitzer uses alcohol as a comparison: "The healthiest way to deal with alcohol is not through practice, but by staying away from it as long as possible. (... "Both are addictive and we don't need them.") (4)According to Spitzer, particularly insecure parents from socially rather weak strata are suggested by the slogan "media competence" that "they would do something good if they invested their scarce money in rapidly outdated hardware and software". (p. 307) If they were to put their child in front of the computer from an early age, they would not have to endure the difficult fate of their parents as workers. But these parents would not know "that the new computer at home will harm the school development of their child, which is so important to them". (S. 308)

Digital games affect school performance, social contacts and attachment to parents and friends

If children and adolescents spend too much time playing video games on game consoles or playing online role-playing games on computers, this will undoubtedly lead to poorer school performance, because in the afternoons or weekends there is much less time to do homework and deepen their knowledge," Spitzer writes, "Children who play video games spend 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing their homework than children who do not. (p. 186) The problem group among the players are the boys. Spitzer sees their intellectual abilities as massively endangered by video and computer games. (p. 188) Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer already pointed out this danger in 2004, two years after the school massacre in Erfurt. He spoke of "media neglect" and warned: "Every third boy threatens to 'slip into the trap of television, Internet and video games'". (5) Three years later he even spoke of the "lost generation of young men". (p. 188) Boys are also so endangered because they increasingly play baller or killer games with the well-known consequences such as an increasing readiness to use violence, a dull attitude towards real violence, social isolation and the danger of addiction. (6) The American military psychologist Dave Grossman called these killer games "mass murder simulators" after the mass murder in Norway. (7) According to his own statements, the Norwegian amok runner trained this planned massacre for one year with the help of killer games. In contrast to the boys, according to Spitzer, the girls "spend considerably less time playing video games than boys; they are less inclined to play violent games and neglect their homework only half as often as boys because of the games". (p. 188) This difference in leisure behaviour with regard to the use of digital media means that girls have for some time been performing better at school than their male counterparts of the same age. Since, according to Spitzer, it is mainly unemployed young men from precarious backgrounds who spend the highest number of hours on digital media and are therefore at risk of addiction, media "do not bring the balance, as is often claimed, but reinforce existing inequalities and thus appear antisocial instead of social". (8) The psychiatry professor Manfred Spitzer therefore demands: "Society urgently needs to reflect this more, because it has not yet learned to deal with the resulting problems, on which studies from neuroscience have long since accumulated. (9) Digital games have even more problematic effects than those mentioned so far. For example, Spitzer mentions experimental studies and studies on the long-term course of personality development which show that the increasing use of screen media damages the empathy and social abilities and skills of children and adolescents and changes the quality of relationships with family and friends: The attachment to parents is reduced and the relationship with peers and friends is impaired. (p. 195f.)

Social networks: Facebook instead of face to face

In his 367-page book, the media effects researcher Manfred Spitzer naturally also deals with the effects and side effects of digital social networks and can only report on unpleasant things, but what parents and educators should absolutely know and think about.The conclusion drawn by Manfred Spitzer at the end of the chapter "Social networks: Facebook instead of face to face" should be quoted in detail for its clarity: "The Internet is full of failing social contacts, ranging from pretending to be someone else to cheating, cheating and even gross crime. They lie, bullied, ripped off, create an aggressive mood, hustle and bustle and defame the fact that the bars bend!

Who is surprised that social networks lead to loneliness and depression among young users in particular? Lack of self-regulation, loneliness and depression are the most important stressors in our modern society. They cause the death of nerve cells and thus promote the long-term development of dementia. In our children, the replacement of genuine interpersonal contacts by digital online networks can in the long term be associated with a reduction in the size of their social brains. In the long term, there is a danger that Facebook & Co. will lead to the shrinking of our entire social brain. From this perspective, it's extremely worrying that about one billion people are now using Facebook." (S. 128)

Limit media consumption at home to a necessary minimum

In the last chapter of his book "What to do? Manfred Spitzer stresses once again - as in previous chapters - that digital media are part of our culture, increase our productivity, make our lives easier and are a great entertainment factor. That's why it can't be about fighting them or even abolishing them. (p. 296) But because of the serious effects especially on the adolescent generation, he advises all parents to keep media consumption to a necessary minimum. He literally writes: "Avoid digital media. As has often been shown here, they actually make people fat, stupid, aggressive, lonely, sick and unhappy. Limit the dose for children, because this is the only thing that has been shown to have a positive effect. Every day a child has spent without digital media is time gained." (p. 325) And he adds: "For our entire society, we have nothing but the heads of the next generation when it comes to our prosperity and the preservation of our culture. Let us stop systematically littering them". (S. 326)
The founders of the social networks as well as the game manufacturers have managed to offer our children with the Internet world an opportunity to isolate themselves from parental access and to distinguish themselves from adults, a space that they design according to their own rules. However, since this space, this Internet world, poses dangers to their mental, spiritual and physical development, parents and educators should learn to understand this isolated world of youth so that they can cope with it in their discussions. And they should try - since it is difficult for adolescents today to be banned from doing anything and everyone must be able to use the computer sensibly today to prepare for their future profession - to introduce their children to the Internet in a constructive, instructive and, depending on their age, more or less closely controlling way. As far as the use of social networks is concerned, boys and girls should be made aware of the fact that if they announce to the whole world that they are goods afterwards, they will be able to express every feeling and every part of their bodies. A product that they have sold to the Internet companies and with which they will make big profits. And that is not what our youth wants.

Literature and Internet Glossary

(1), Manfred Spitzer: „Internet macht dumm" v. 18.08.2012.
(2), BARMER GEK Arztreport 2012 v. 31.01.2012.
(3) „Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung FAZ", Kinderköpfe brauchen Ruhe v. 19.10.2011.
(4), Manfred Spitzer: „Internet macht dumm" v. 18.08.2012.
(5), Ein Drittel der Jungen droht abzurutschen v. 27.04. 2004
(6) S. Hänsel, R. (2011) Game over! Wie Killerspiele unsere Jugend manipulieren. Berlin 2011.
(7) persönlicher Schriftverkehr
(8), Manfred Spitzer: „Internet macht dumm" v. 18.08.2012.
(9), Manfred Spitzer: „Internet macht dumm" v. 18.08.2012.

Über die Autorin/den Autor

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