Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rush to digitalize toddlers risks Internet addiction

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More suited to a sci-fi flick than reality, a startling epidemic of young people with smartphone-addled brains is on the rise, and the long-term consequences might be far worse than you or I could imagine.

Reporting one in five students is addicted to their smartphone, South Korea, the world's most tech-savvy nation, is aggressively tackling the problem, establishing more than 100 Internet-addiction camps.

As the number of young smartphone users escalates around the globe, educating children and parents about the effects of this increasingly prevalent drug of the future is imperative.

South Korean medical researchers released a recent report that illuminates the experiment in which we are all unwitting participants.

Neuroscientists there reported a rise in digital dementia -- the tendency of the young to be so obsessed with smartphones they can't remember phone numbers, produce legible handwriting or look people in the eye, all signs of a type of brain damage.

In a nation where 20 per cent of 10- to 19-year-olds spend seven hours a day on smartphones and tablets, exposures are the highest in the world and reports of lopsided brain development are increasing.

According to the Korean Ministry of Science, the country has more digital devices than people, with many children beginning to use devices as toddlers.

Psychiatrist Dr. Byun Gi-Won, of the Balance Brain Center in Seoul, South Korea, explained, "Young people who are heavy technology users are likely to have a properly developed left hemisphere of the brain while the right hemisphere will be unused and underdeveloped."

The Atlantic Monthly reported that in Korea, a cottage industry of Internet-addiction treatment centres has surfaced.

Meanwhile in the U.S., parents are giving young children cellphones as toys. The Los Angeles School District, along with many others, is making multimillion-dollar commitments to the use of wireless digital devices, and Google has "gifted" the city of San Francisco Wi-Fi for major public parks.

These expansive growths of wireless are taking place with no thought about the long-term impact this can have on developing brains, bodies and babies that are growing up in a sea of radio-frequency radiation -- also known as microwave radiation -- that is without precedent in human history.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the group I head, Environmental Health Trust, have long advocated that children need more lap time than screen time.

If digital devices must be used to distract a toddler on a long car trip, put them on airplane mode and make sure they remain disconnected from Internet or Wi-Fi. Most tips for reducing usage come down to one simple notion -- distance is your friend and time is your enemy. Keep calls and connection times as short as possible.

Look around you these days. Young parents are glued to their phones while strolling with their toddlers -- some of whom are also zoned into their own electronic devices. Watch youngsters turn crestfallen when a caregiver shifts from playing with them to answer a text or call. See families seated at dinner tables, each immersed in their own screen.

When we strip away from our lives all the electronified trappings and stuff with which we are so preoccupied; when we throw away all those things we now crave and believe we need, what is left is what essentially makes us human.

The rush to digitize toddlers and young children flies in the face of what developmental psychologists have long understood. Children learn best by direct human touch and eye contact -- from real people not machines.


Devra Davis, PhD, is an award-winning author and scientist. She is president of Environmental Health Trust, a non-profit research and policy organization, based in Jackson, Wyo.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2013 A11

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