When the German brain researcher Manfred Spitzer published his book with the provocative title “Digitale Demenz” [Digital Dementia] in 2012, it caused a storm: arousing opponents as well as advocates of the use of digital media by children.
Culturally pessimistic voices of digital media viewed their ongoing criticism as being confirmed, just as did concerned parents and educators, who see their offspring using computer games and Facebook day in and day out.
On the other hand, many have criticised his approach as unrealistic, unscientific and rejecting of progress. The book is now available in several other languages (currently in Japanese, Polish and Italian). Spitzer is a frequent speaker at conferences and training events and has been able to provide his theses with credibility through his international reputation as a neuroscientist and psychiatrist. Many take issue with his popular-science attitude – which nevertheless has resulted in an extraordinary reception in the public as well as in the professional world.
Loss of neuroplasticity
His thesis is that particularly children and young people are in danger of losing or not even developing cognitive skills due to the intensive use of digital media. Particularly at risk is the users’ “neuroplasticity”: the brain’s ability to adapt to new requirements.
Everything which is perceived leaves “traces in the brain”, and since children today use media for approximately seven hours per day on average, it is particularly these impressions and not real-world experiences which leave their traces. The ability to process things from the real world atrophies as a result.
In these media children, there is an absence not only of an important foundation of experience for an understanding of the world, but also of a compatible and, therefore, successful manner of learning. They are not likely to acquire these lacking skills later in life because they have not been generated during the most important phase of development of the brain.
Spitzer has adapted the concept of “digital dementia” from South Korean researchers who first observed this phenomenon (2). On the basis of many studies, Spitzer lists a number of recommendations for action with which these trends can be counteracted in daily educational life. They range from classic advice, such as more exercise and healthy eating, to singing and experiencing nature.
Spitzer’s provocative theses have not been without opposition. In a debate with Spitzer, media psychologists from the University of Koblenz-Landau argue that his theories have little in common with scientific knowledge. According to Appel and Schreiner, scientific results in many areas contradict the theses regarding the harmful effects of the Internet. Increased Internet usage is said to not lead to less social interaction or less socio-political commitment. Moreover, intensive Internet users are said to not be lonelier than infrequent users (3). In a recent essay, Spitzer himself has accused his critics of referring to inadequate and outdated studies in the process of their refuting his findings (4).
Digital dementia and adult education
What insights does this debate provide for adult education? If Spitzer’s theses are correct, then adult education has to adapt to potential customers who are lacking basic experience. These former “media children” are mainly socialised by their media consumption and less by the real world of experience.
According to Spitzer’s assumptions, the resulting stunted neuroplasticity is hardly able to be recovered, even with education. Nevertheless, for this target group in particular, it would be worth a try to offer concrete real-life experience, such as in nature or in the company of other people. This would involve developing concrete, compensatory education concepts and researching their effectiveness.
Since massive media consumption is often associated with low-level educational backgrounds, such approaches should also consider the social context of the target group. It would be conceivable, for example, to enable young people to have intensive basic experiences (such as in nature) during formal education, non-formal education or vocational preparation courses.
The term “dementia” is actually misleading, since it refers precisely to the irreversible loss of brain performance. At the onset of dementia, educational processes and offers barely have any influence. Therefore, adult education with such individuals would be pointless. According to this approach, assisting the people and not educating them would be suitable.
However, this irreversibility is not verified, and the concept of dementia in this context is to be understood as a handy formulation which has public appeal. It would be advisable, though, to develop diagnostic tools that could identify a possible cognitive impairment resulting from massive media use. On this basis, concrete (educational) approaches could be applied.
Farewell to media education?
In his book, Spitzer argues clearly against the promotion of media literacy. According to his provocative thesis, media literacy is pointless and media educators are unnecessary. He states that it would be best if children and young people were not given access to computers in school at all.
Although media education generally lags behind the development of media, it is still a discipline which, through its concepts, can promote a critical approach to media. Whether it is a critical look behind the scenes of the media world, a creative use of media, or an introduction to culture media (such as movies or books), media education has developed many successful concepts over the course of its history.
The most significant effects of Spitzer’s work have occurred through his books on parental and family education. His provocative theses make him a sought-after speaker at events on current educational topics. Many parents are in despair over the sprawling media consumption of their children and see Spitzer as a prominent supporter.
However, it can be assumed that the theses are mainly adapted by media-critical, concerned parents and teachers, rather than by people involved in backgrounds involving lower levels of education. The danger therefore exists of a further strengthening of the already existing social divide, as already described at the European level in the skills-measuring PIAAC study.
1)Manfred Spitzer. Digitale Demenz. Wie wir uns und unsere Kinder um den Verstand bringen. Droemer Verlag, Munich 2012.
4)Manfred Spitzer. Über vermeintlich neue Erkenntnisse zu den Risiken und Nebenwirkungen digitaler Informationstechnik. Psychologische Rundschau, April 2015, Vol. 66, Issue 2, pp. 114-119