Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I-brain growing threat

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Students across Canada hit the books this week, but only in a figurative sense. Many young people in schools and universities may never actually crack open a dusty, old paper tome, which is becoming an obsolete technology, particularly in the field of education.

Instead, most students will open laptops, iPads, smartphones and other devices that have become powerful tools for study and education.

Computers have revolutionized the classroom by providing students with new learning methods and a vast store of research material, but there's a downside.

Too many young people -- people of all ages, actually -- aren't turning off their computers when they leave school or work. They're living their lives online in a sort of alternate reality, tuned out of the world around them and addicted to the instant gratification of technology.

The term 'Internet addiction' was first coined in 1994 by a psychologist who treated a man who spent 50 hours a week in chat rooms. Since then, the phenomenon has expanded exponentially in step with the growth of new technologies and gadgets, such as wristwatch computers.

It's not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder, but the American Psychiatric Association has listed "Internet-use disorder" as a subject in need of further study. Some experts believe it is premature to label young people as addicts.

According to various studies, however, addicted individuals can suffer from anxiety, depression, emptiness and loneliness when not online. Some highly addicted teens are prone to self-injurious behaviour, obesity and lower school achievement.

The nature of addiction is it usually points to a personal weakness or vulnerability, much the way excessive gambling or obsession with pornography may be symptoms of other psychological problems.

The point, however, is young people make up a large percentage of those affected.

South Korea has established more than 100 Internet-addiction camps after discovering 20 per cent of its young people under the age of 19 are addicted to their smartphones. Similar "detox" centres have been set up in China, the United States and other countries around the world.

The solution to the problem, of course, is not the elimination of technology. Rather, schools, parents and employers have a duty to educate themselves about Internet addiction so they can recognize the symptoms.

People of all ages are vulnerable, but students and their malleable brains are most at risk.

Everyone has noticed how teenagers seem oblivious to the world around them when they are plugged into their smartphone or texting their friends in seemingly endless loops. For some of these kids, ordinary human communication is an interruption, but it could also be a sign of a developing addiction, according to various studies.

There is no substitute for human warmth when dealing with children or, for that matter, people of any age.

But the increasing digitization of society, and the classroom in particular, is disrupting familiar social patterns in a way that could have vast consequences for human interaction.

As technology becomes a mandatory component of education and books fade into history, a new generation of young people will have grown up wired to the Internet and social media, invariably connected to a world dominated by gadgets and endless diversions.

Their homework is also part of that world, of course, and for many students learning has become easier and more fulfilling. Not everyone who has a drink becomes an alcoholic, and there's no reason to believe humanity is doomed to Internet addiction.

Many people, however, are getting lost in the fog of cyberspace. Teachers and parents should be aware of that peril as the kids start opening their books this fall.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A14

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