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Press Esc!: The child’s brain and technology

Professor Dr Manfred Spitzer, a German psychiatrist, psychologist, neuroscientist and author, is one of the most well-known and respected neuroscientists in the world. While in Namibia, Dr Spritzer shared his knowledge on what technology is doing to our brains and our ability to learn, and what this effect will have on us as we age. 


MYD: You have done some incredible research into ‘digital dementia’. Please share with us what this means.

MS: The term was coined by South Korean physicians who had to deal with middle-aged men who couldn’t concentrate, felt depressed, lacked motivation and had memory problems, and it turned out that they all spent a lot of time in front of computers. They coined the term ‘digital dementia’ for the negative mental effects of the overuse of digital media. I myself take this as an umbrella term of the risks and side-effects of digital media use. When you’re born, your brain is a learning device but it doesn’t know anything, so you learn how to walk and talk by using your brain. 


Many people these days, the young digital natives, will outsource information. You have to use your brain and the more you do, the more usable and useful it’s going to be in the future. We adults think that when we outsource mental processing by using tools, we become more productive in our work. We outsource arithmetic – just key in numbers and a machine will do the trick. But when you outsource all that mental activity, it’s bad for your brain and the younger the brain is, the worse this outsourcing is for it. This is why exposing kids to digital technology is really a crime. If you give a two- or three-year-old kid an iPad, you dumb your kid down.


MYD: Let’s talk for a moment about the addictive nature of technology and why children should not be exposed to any form of technology.

MS: Parents should know that even a television in the background impairs the language development of kids. This has been proven by research comparing families with TV on in the background and those with no TV on in the background.


MYD: What is your advice for creating balance in your life as an adult and for your children? Where do you draw the technological line?

MS: Make sure that you are clearly aware of the fact that the dosage makes the poison, so looking at the smartphone once a day is okay, but looking at it three hundred times a day is not okay. Every single day without a screen is a good day for a developing kid. In Germany, some kindergarten kids have smartphones and we shouldn’t do that.


Why don’t we let 14-year-olds drive cars? Because we think the non-developed brain of a 14-year- old should not be in charge of a hundred horsepower under the hood. By the same token, the non-developed brain of a fourteen year old should not be left alone with the largest crime scene, the largest pornographic kingdom and the biggest access to all kinds of nonsense. 


MYD: Would you recommend something like a digital detox, where you have one day when you don’t spend any time in front of anything digital?

MS: Oh, I’d say going offline is the new luxury. Get off the screen and do something real with real people in real life. Be physically active, be with other people and be in nature because it has been shown that nature has many beneficial effects on the mental state of people. It makes you more creative, it reduces stress, which is the most harmful thing you can have, and it even makes you a more moral person.