It’s been happening everywhere, and it’s absurd.

At every social function. Everywhere. People are glued to their phones. Caressing their magic screens, like a young tabby with a catnip addiction. Is social media really that remarkable? Or is FOMO (fear of missing out) causing the addiction? Whatever the cause, this captivating digital euphoria may be causing digital dementia.

German neuroscientist, Manfred Spitzer, coined the term, digital dementia, in his 2012 book by the same name. The term does not mean to make light of diseases commonly associated with the word dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease and other similar conditions with symptoms of confusion, disorientation and impaired memory. Digital dementia is all too real and causes similar symptoms.

What Do We Mean By “Digital Dementia?”

The term, digital dementia, describes how overusing digital technology is resulting in the deterioration of cognitive abilities in a manner more commonly seen in patients who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness. The idea is explored in numerous studies, articles and books around the world.

The consensus among scientists seems to be that our brains follow a sort of “use-it-or-lose-it” policy, which can be dangerous in an age where we outsource our memory to electronic devices and/or search engines rather than our own memory.

Compulsive Internet Use has been identified as a mental health issue in countries around the world, including the United States. It is a particularly acute problem in South Korea. According to a New York Times article, ninety percent of homes in South Korea connect to cheap, high-speed broadband. Social life for the young revolves around dim internet parlors which are on practically every street corner.

But South Korea is doing a great deal to rectify the problem, including government-funded programs like an internet detox boot camp to treat the worst cases. In the U.S., an estimated nine million people may be at risk for the disorder. Only a handful of clinics do anything to treat the problem.

According to a national Kaiser Family Foundation study, kids in the U.S. between the ages of eight and 18, spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a day with technology. As a result of media multitasking (texting, phone calls, listening to music and surfing the web), they actually cram 11 hours of media content into those seven-and-a-half hours.

This level of technology absorption is concerning, and the effects it produces are not limited to digital dementia and cognitive decline but also an intense feeling of loneliness.

How Modern Technologies Inflame Loneliness

A cartoon woman crying with a speech bubble reading "Jeff ended his text with a period! My life is over!"

Sherry Turkle is a clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. She is a sort of anthropologist, studying humanity’s interactions with computers. In her book, “Alone Together,” Turkle reflects on her observations of people/computer interaction since the ’80s. (An NPR interview with the author can be found here: ‘Alone Together’.)

The advantages of modern smart phones and constant connection to social media are obvious. We have more control over conversations. It’s easy to ignore a call from someone you don’t like or end a texting conversation whenever you like. Online, you can be anyone you desire to. No one is as interesting and or as constantly happy as they are on their Facebook profile. Online games, like “World of Warcraft,” allow people to be who they would rather be—the old appear young, the weak strong, the unattractive beautiful, etc.

However, Turkle believes that the perceived weaknesses of “normal” conversations are actually strengths, beneficial and essential to human development. In her book, she says “…being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together, because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen.”

But being constantly plugged in is isolating people from reality and creating loneliness, and Turkle says having face-to-face interaction teaches “skills of negotiation, of reading each other’s emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, dealing with complex emotion.”

According to a Foundation for Economic Education article, technology gives people a compelling reason not to talk to one another. Our brains are wired to pay attention to distraction. Modern technology makes that easy. We can survive without talking to anyone. People work from their homes, order groceries and talk to friends without any real physical interaction. But what seems harmless and convenient in the present moment can, in the long term, disintegrate the web of community people need for a healthy lifestyle.

People easily get stuck in situations where online interaction only occurs with similar-minded people, creating an echo chamber. Loneliness at this level leads to seriously risky behaviors.

The Rebounding Effect of Echo Chambers

Living in the digital age has given rise to an “Age of Loneliness” according to author George Monbiot, and it’s easy to see.

Results from a Cigna national study found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis. Most other interaction is online.

These results are astounding, especially when looking at the negative effects loneliness can have on a person. Loneliness causes negative health effects like raised blood pressure, disrupted sleep, diminished immune system, depression, paranoia, anxiety as well as suicide.

Loneliness feeds on loneliness, and creates a frame of mind that is debilitating. It breeds harmful emotions like anger, blame, resentment and fear. It can also cause alcohol and drug abuse. The two tend to create a cycle. Loneliness can lead to addiction or result from it.

Addiction is a common reaction to loneliness, but so is criminal behavior. People dealing with feelings of loneliness often feel an inability to cope with problems in usual ways.

Research suggests that loneliness has often been the cause of stealing and vandalism in students, and that the most common reason criminals, convicted of rape, committed their crime was due to feelings of loneliness, inefficiency and rejection.

When one is caught in this pit of loneliness, a ladder is required to climb out. That ladder cannot be provided solely through the social media world. A support system is required. We need family, friends, coworkers and caregivers to put down their phones and physically be there. There to cherish experiences with us and help us through the rocky times, in our day-to-day lives.

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