In South Korea, doctors call it "digital dementia."
The Asian country is one of the world's most wired societies, with 95 percent of the population connected to the Internet. There, young people in their late 20s and early 30s regularly show up at clinics exhibiting many of the symptoms usually associated with mental disorders in the elderly. Those symptoms include memory problems, an inability to concentrate, and sleeplessness.
The young patients' difficulties, the doctors say, come from high exposure levels to digital screen media, ranging from televisions to computers to game consoles to smart phones. And while no one has yet calculated how many young Koreans are affected, the phenomenon is adding fuel to the already contentious debate between neuroscientists over the health risks of using digital media.
Manfred Spitzer, the head of the Psychiatry Department at Ulm University in Germany, is among those who believe the overuse of computers damages the development of children's brains.
"I am not talking about [being online] five minutes a day. I am talking about 7 1/2 hours per day, which in Germany is the average media use," Spitzer says. "There is one thing this cannot have, and that is no effect. Because our brain constantly changes by its use. So if you use it with digital media, that will change your brain and it will change it for the worse."
Full Range Of Stimuli
Spitzer, who last year published a book titled "Digital Dementia," says that during childhood and early adolescence the human brain is astonishingly "plastic." That is, it forms its circuitry of neuron paths in response to the way the brain is used and later, in adulthood, this circuitry becomes fixed.
There is one thing this cannot have, and that is no effect.
For Spitzer, that means it is essential to give developing brains the full range of stimuli that comes from interacting with the real world: from confronting physical obstacles to problem solving to social interactions. He says that, by comparison, the virtual world offers less stimuli and less opportunity for the developing brain to achieve its full potential.
"If you just point with a mouse to something, rather than touching it and handling it, you will not use in learning about that object, approximately, one-third of your brain that is controlling motor behavior. That is, your hands and your plans to do something," he says. "So this one-third of the brain is basically not used by learning, and if it is not used by learning to get discriminative representations within this one-third of the brain, you cannot then use this one-third of your brain when you think about this thing."
Action video games have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, vision, etc.
He says the rapid switching between topics when surfing the Internet, or between images when playing video games, can impede the developing brain's ability to build up the neuron patterns used for long-term recall of specific subjects and for other complex cognitive skills. As an example of how quickly people switch subjects on the Internet, polls of Americans show Internet users on the average spend just a minute looking at any single webpage.
For all these reasons, Spitzer argues for minimizing young people's use of digital media until late adolescence, by which time the brain mostly has fully developed. He is adamantly against children under 17 using computers in schools.
Learn, Focus, Multitask
But if some neuroscientists say using digital media has negative effects on the brain's development, others say it can enhance mental skills.
University of Geneva professor and cognitive researcher Daphne Bavelier studies how video games affect the brain. She believes they help users to learn, focus, and multitask better than nonusers.
"Action video games have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, vision, etc., and so we need and we are working on understanding what are those active ingredients so that we can then leverage them to deliver better games either for education or for rehabilitation of patients," she says.
Bavelier says her research shows video-game players acquire better-than-average abilities to distinguish details within cluttered images and track multiple moving objects, both of which are skills useful, for example, in driving. She also says her research disproves claims that video games lead to attention problems and distractibility.
The key for using computers beneficially, she says, is to exercise moderation and to avoid binging on video games or Internet surfing for hours on end.
The wide difference of opinions among neuroscientists regarding digital media suggests two things.
One is that studying digital media is still a new science. It dates only to the emergence of television in the 1950s and the appearance of home computers starting in the late 1970s.
The second is that this new science will undoubtedly grow in importance in the future, as ever more digital media appear.