Kim Min-woo, 15, started having memory problems recently. He started flunking tests in subjects that required heavy bouts of memorization. And then he couldn’t remember the six-digit keypad code to get into his own home. He had to call the code up on his smartphone to get in the door.
Kim’s mother took him to a doctor and the diagnosis was shocking: Kim had symptoms of early onset dementia due to intense exposure to digital technology. Since the age of five, Kim was tethered to either the television or the computer. He is an avid computer game lover.
“His brain’s ability to transfer information to long-term memory has been impaired because of his heavy exposure to digital gadgets,” said psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital in southern Seoul, who diagnosed Kim and is treating him.
Koreans were the earliest converts to digital life, and they may be the first to be afflicted by its most harmful side effects. Penetration of wireless broadband, at 104.2 out of 100 people, is the world’s highest.
More than 67 percent of Koreans over the age of 16 have smartphones, again the world’s highest. And where adult Koreans go, so do the kids and teens.
According to the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, 64.5 percent of teens now have smartphones, up from 21.4 percent in 2011.
Internet addiction was recognized as a problem in both adults and young people as early as the late 1990s. Now Korea is discovering a scourge called “digital dementia” - the kind of early onset dementia, or deterioration of cognitive abilities, that usually only comes about following a head injury or psychiatric illness.
Korean doctors are finding a growing number of cases of memory problems, attention disorders and emotional flattening among kids and teens spending too much time web searching, texting and using multimedia.
They think young people are at particular risk because their brains are still developing.
“Overuse of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain,” says Byun Gi-won, a medical doctor who runs the Balance Brain Center in southern Seoul, which helps people with cognitive problems related to computers and smartphones.
“Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or under developed,” the doctor said. Engaging with computer or mobile devices is the kind of activity that is handled by the left side of the brain, he said.
“Left-brain skills include rational, linear, fact-finding thinking processes whereas right brain skills include intuition, imagination, emotional thoughts,” says Doctor Kim Young-bo at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon.
“Since smartphone use mostly stimulates the left side of the brain, the right side, which is linked with concentration, eventually degenerates, reducing attention and memory span,” Doctor Kim said.
Psychiatrist Park Ki-jeong warned that the cognitive disorders such as shortened attention span and reduced memory capacity could lead to actual early onset dementia.
“Ten to 15 percent of those with the mild cognitive disorders develop dementia,” he said. “And there’s an increasing number of young people experiencing those disorders.”
The government-run Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service reports that the number of people suffering from cognitive problems in their 20s to 40s jumped to 1,585 last year from 1,160 in 2008.
“From the early 2000s, I’ve seen a drastic increase in patients with reduced memory spans, especially young people. When I looked at it, most of them were exposed of the heavy consumption of digital gadgets,” said Dr. Kim at Gachon University Gil Medical Center in Incheon, who works at the hospital’s brain research institute.
“The gadgets ease the burden of memorizing tedious information but if we don’t use our brain functions, the overall cognitive skills of being aware and perception will ultimately decrease,” he said.
Dr. Choi Jeong-seok of Boramae Medical Center in southern Seoul recently noticed an increase in the number of teens coming to the psychiatry center of the hospital.
“Many of them are affected by mental and cognitive disorders because they are addicted to computer games and smartphones,” he says.
And the number of teens getting hooked on smartphones is only going up, as figures from the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning announced this month demonstrate.
The percentage of young people between 10 and 19 who use their smartphones for more than seven hours a day was 18.4 percent, a 7 percent increase from last year.
Clinics dedicated to helping teens and young people restore impaired cognitive ability are springing up.
Experts point out that some brain functions are going through major developments at the age of 17 to 19.
“Right and left prefrontal lobes mature at around 17 to 19 so the period is critical,” said Jang Won-woong, a researcher at the Balance Brain center in southern Seoul. “Teens can impair that development by being exposed to many devices.”
Despite such sobering warnings from medical professionals, Korea is now poised to fully adopt digital devices in the classroom, making even broader use of the Internet and computers.
“In reality, using digital media in kindergarten or primary school is actually a way of getting children addicted,” wrote German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer of the Ulm University Hospital in his 2012 book “Digital Dementia.”
“I’m not sure whether classrooms equipped with advanced technology work well,” said Kim Young-bo of the Gil Hospital. “Children are easily distracted and they are vulnerable to addiction.”
BY BAEK IL-HYUN, PARK EUN-JEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]