Do digital media lead to 'digital dementia'?
Digital dementia is the subject of much controversial debate. The discussion is dominated by a concern that we are outsourcing more and more of our memory capacity to digital storage on computers and smartphones. Some researchers fear that digital media may be having a detrimental effect on our brains. Alumniportal Deutschland talked to neuroscientist Professor Michael Madeja about this.
On the one hand, there are the scientists who are warning against digital dementia. An article on the subject of 'digital dementia' appeared in the Korea Times in 2007. Out of around 2,000 people interviewed, 63 per cent admitted to suffering from forgetfulness, even though their searching abilities had improved. 'As people are more dependent on digital devices for searching for information than memorising it, the brain function for searching improves whereas the ability to remember decreases', explains Professor Yoon Se-chang, a doctor at the Samsung Medical Center. Manfred Spitzer's book Digital Dementia is well known in Germany. It warns against the harmful effects of digital media and internet usage.
On the other hand, this has recently been disputed by a number of scientists, such as researchers at the University of Koblenz-Landau and also the neuroscientist Professor Michael Madeja. We talked to him about 'digital dementia'.
Professor Michael Madeja is a doctor of medicine, brain researcher and Professor of Medicine at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. He is also Director of the public-benefit Hertie Foundation, which has established leading research centres for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
Is there any evidence that using digital media leads to harmful changes in the brain such as dementia?
Michael Madeja: No, 'digital dementia' is a term primarily intended to have advertising appeal. We have no evidence that using digital media leads to harmful changes in the brain, and particularly not those found in types of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease.
Professor Manfred Spitzer has said that computers are 'machines that impede learning'. Is there any evidence for this?
Michael Madeja: The brain constantly alters and adapts itself and is therefore a system that is constantly learning. It expands its capacity to process what is required, and downsizes capacity where it is no longer needed. For example, if you sit in front of a screen a lot playing computer games, your brain will optimise itself in line with this challenge. Your fine motor skills, reaction times and decision-making ability will improve – you will be learning in the truest sense of the word. But conversely, if you learn less thoroughly in this way, your cognitive performance will decline.
When you talked earlier about 'a negative change in cognitive performance', this highlights the problematic nature of the debate: it is society rather than brain research that defines what is negative. Whether a decrease in memory function is undesirable, or tolerated, or even desirable because it frees up some of the brain's processing capacity for other tasks is something that is decided by our society and the environment.
What impact does intensive media usage have specifically on the brains of children and young people?
Michael Madeja: Everything that we think and do changes our brains. So any use of media – in particular intensive use – will also have an impact on the structure of our brains. However, in most cases these changes are so subtle and variable from person to person that they cannot be recorded using current methods of brain research. This can only be done successfully in the case of very large or far-reaching effects. For example, the increases in those parts of the brain involved in thumb movements are visible in intensive mobile phone users.
When it comes to young people, we also need to bear in mind that puberty is a time of particular alterations in the brain. Brain research is only now starting to investigate this, so we know very little about structural changes in the brains of young people during media use.
Researchers at Michigan University have shown that video training improves children's cognitive performance. What exactly is happening in the brain here?
Michael Madeja: Most of our findings relating to screen usage in children, particularly young children, are in fact negative. Children's brains seem to have trouble coping with the large amounts of rapidly changing information displayed on screens. Even programmes designed to promote children's abilities (such as the programme 'Baby Einstein' in the United States) have proved to be unhelpful or even harmful to their development. But there are exceptions, such as the programme Sesame Street. When viewed in moderation, this has been shown to improve vocabulary and counting skills.
I expect there will be many more programmes in the future that take advantage of people's high motivation to play computer games in order improve learning processes. But this is empirical or educational research, to which brain research is currently able to contribute very little.
Do online courses such as MOOCs have a negative impact on student performance? What happens in the brain when we only learn online?
Michael Madeja: What is crucial here too is what we do, not how something is presented to us. According to scientific investigations that have compared brain activity during digital media and conventional ways of presenting information, we can conclude that the brain doesn't really differentiate between screen-based information and real images. So it shouldn't actually make any difference whether we read teaching material in the form of paper-based articles or on a screen. It has been shown that the areas of the brain involved in reading ability develop in exactly the same way in children who are learning on computers as in children who are learning in the traditional way.
If students perform worse on online courses, this may well be because in real courses the information is presented differently and better or the motivation to learn is greater. After all, the effort required involves more than just switching on a computer. It would be very interesting to compare learning outcomes for MOOCs with those for traditional lecture-style teaching. If I had to choose, I would put my money on MOOCs.
Your opinion on digital dementia
Can older people's cognitive performance be increased by video games? And does surfing the Internet help Alzheimer's? What do you think? Are we surrendering too much of our brain power to digital media, thereby making ourselves dependent on it? Or do digital media support us, relieve us of lots of work and enable us to work better, faster and more creatively? Share your opinion and comment below.
Author: Sigrid Born