AUSTIN, Texas — The national obsession with all things digital, from smartphones to online games, has some health experts worried about kids today — especially their brains.
The 2-year-old who can nimbly use an iPad or kill a gazillion monsters playing a video game isn’t necessarily a genius, says Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist. That child could be en route to trouble with memory and thinking, a condition Spitzer and others call “digital dementia.”
“When you use the computer, you outsource your mental activity,” Spitzer said in a recent talk. While computers can be fine tools for adults who are using their minds all day long, they’re poison for kids, he said.
Spitzer is author of the 2012 book “Digital Dementia: What We and Our Children are Doing to our Minds.”
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Spitzer, medical director of the Psychiatric University Hospital in Ulm, Germany, is among those sounding an alarm on screen use by children. Although some say those fears are overblown, the American Academy of Pediatrics has also raised concerns. In 2011, it urged no TV for those under 2.
The academy said that “unstructured playtime is critical to learning problem-solving skills and fostering creativity.”
“Media use has been associated with obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors, and attention issues in preschool- and school-aged children,” the academy said.
Parents should limit screen time for children of all ages to two hours a day and set “screen-free zones,” including bedrooms, the academy says.
The term “digital dementia” was coined a few years ago in South Korea, home to one of the highest digital-using populations, Spitzer said. Doctors reported seeing young patients with memory and cognitive problems, conditions more commonly linked to brain injuries.
Many children don’t memorize anything because they can Google it, Spitzer said. He argues that multitasking and clicking around are distracting, contribute to low attention and impair learning.
“The more you train kids with computer games, the more attention deficit you get,” he said.
Games also can be addictive, he said.
Warren Spector, director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas, said in an email that Spitzer’s arguments are the same ones social critics and researchers made about movies, TV, comic books and rock ’n’ roll.
“Today, all of those media are widely accepted as legitimate art forms,” Spector wrote in an email. “They’re studied in universities. And their effects on children and adults are considered ambiguous, at most.”
Spitzer says the minimum age for media consumption should be between 15 and 18. He sees kids with high frustration and stunted social skills. “The more time you spend with screen media … the less your social skills will be,” Spitzer said.
Young people look at their smartphones about 150 times a day, he said. He believes frequent screen use raises stress and anxiety in all ages. He says it’s better to read a newspaper in print because the reader retains more and isn’t captive to pop-ups and other distractions that encourage the constant clicking around he abhors.
Several pediatricians said they share Spitzer’s concerns — to a point.
“It makes sense at the extreme that it would affect memory,” Dr. Stephen Pont, a pediatrician at Dell Children’s Medical Center, said of digital media. “We do know it can affect sleep quality.”
He allows his two young sons to play online games during long family trips but limits their screen time. “When you overdo anything there can be negative results,” Pont said.
Dr. Bradley Berg, medical director of pediatrics at Scott & White Hospital-Round Rock, said that he also favors screen limits. Children should spend more time interacting with others and exercising, which boosts brain health, he said.
“If a person is constantly letting a computer think for them or are spending hours surfing the Internet, then they are not using their brain and, hence, their neural pathways are not stimulated,” he wrote in an email. “We know very well that neurons that are not used are pruned away.”