Manfred Spitzer, a neuroscientist and medical director at the Psychiatric University Hospital in Ulm, wrote the 2012 bestselling book “Digital Dementia.” In it, he outlined his controversial view that the Internet is destroying our brains, damaging education and even causing disease.
Critics accuse him of hyping the perceived threats, but his message resonates with many educators and parents who worry young minds are being short-circuited by digital media. Dr. Spitzer, 57, recently talked with Handelsblatt about his crusade against Internet giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook.
Professor Spitzer, your sequel to “Digital Dementia” is called Cybersick. What kind of diseases are you diagnosing?
The digital revolution provokes much intellectual as well as physical damage — including depression, addictive symptoms, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and cancer.
Internet use triggers cancer? You’re not serious, are you?
It can cause chronic stress, which ultimately feeds off the feeling of losing control, in this case, the fear of no longer being able to master the digital offerings. Chronic stress harms digestion, growth and the immune system, and with that inevitably raises the probability of cancer.
Who do you hold responsible?
An unfortunate combination of the Internet, smartphone and a digital media industry that can no longer be mastered. Google, Facebook, Apple and Co. are a powerful complex with more than $2 trillion (€1.86 trillion) market capitalization. Politicians tell me behind closed doors that they can’t start a fight with them anymore, otherwise they’re finished. So it’s clear that politics won’t solve the problem.
Are you upset that a recent media inquiry commission in the German parliament didn’t even call you to give evidence?
Why didn’t they? If they wanted to know whether three-year-olds should eat candy, then they don’t ask the experts on candy, they ask the experts on three-year-olds. If the parliamentary representatives are debating whether information technology should be used in schools, they do not invite experts for schoolchildren or for brain development, but rather experts from the media and IT industry. Following that logic, they should also ask McDonald’s what schoolchildren should eat.
But seriously, how can you even compare the risks of computer use with those of smoking?
After it became clear that smoking was hazardous to health, the tobacco lobby still managed for a half a century to sell us “freedom and adventure” and to prohibit stricter laws. Do you recognize the parallels?
You mean, because Google and others promise to make the world better?
Precisely. As the cigarette industry once acted, now it is the IT lobby, which, however, has much more power and means at its disposal.
But we still find smoking much more dangerous than the Internet.
If you add up all the effects [of the internet], and multiply that by the world’s population, you would reach even more catastrophic figures. After an evaluation of hundreds of new studies, I can tell you: The consequences of the digital era are far worse for humans than nicotine ever was. Already there are 4.5 billion smartphones globally. We are talking about the world population! Naturally, no one is directly dying because of a cellphone. But no one with a cigarette in their hand and lung cancer is falling down either! It is about long-term probabilities, to become sick from stress-related consequences.
So you believe that the Internet only causes damage?
That is not at all what I am saying.
But that is what it says in your books.
To be nice, the PR bubble is also responsible for the industry. I am a doctor, so I’m concerned with the risks and side effects of digital media.
The Internet also provided an enormous democratization of information for the world’s population.
And it also empowers the U.S. National Security Agency and total state control in countries like the People’s Republic of China. Compared to the possibilities for espionage into our heads today, the Stasi [East German secret police] was a joke. We are being spied upon and we freely take part in it.
Again: The digital revolution does not only mean Facebook, constant texting and online criminals. It is also about Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and transparency.
Everyone talks about that so happily, even the 16 German ministers of education and arts, who still think that using computers in schools will make our children smarter.
Even the latest studies from the OECD and Pisa school test results show no positive correlation between spending on digital technology in schools with the learning success of students. The long-term use of digital means – in Germany about 7.5 hours daily, on average — impairs the education, health and life satisfaction of youths.
After “Digital Dementia,” you were accused of offering strong opinions but not backing them up with proof.
That’s nonsense. I have not yet discovered a study that really contradicts me. On the contrary: In the past three years, hundreds of empirical works that show a horrifying picture have been produced. I orient myself to the quality of the studies, not to whether they perhaps support my worldview. I am a scientist, not a missionary.
Following the publication of “Digital Dementia,” you were reviled as a “racket psychiatrist.”
It was no fun. But the readers are on my side.
Critics also compared you to doctors in the 19th century who warned that train travel above 30 kilometers per hour was life threatening…
… Which naturally was nonsense and also not proven empirically. On the other hand, at the end of the 19th century, some people enjoyed exposing each other to X-rays, because it seemed funny. It took many decades, for instance, until the last X-ray machines disappeared from shoe stores, which had been used to measure children’s feet!
If you were a little less forthright, perhaps you would seem more credible.
Next, you might ask that I advocate for asbestos — because although it causes cancer, it is also good for fire protection? I am tired of these messages!
So should we then get rid of the Internet?
Naturally not. As researchers and doctors, we work daily with it. But we have to protect our children from it, dose its use among youths and deliver information on the side effects. Parents should not simply give computers, cellphones or video games to their offspring too early. Whoever puts a PlayStation under the Christmas tree is presenting bad grades and school problems. That is a fact.
How do you use the Internet and your smartphone?
Throughout the whole day. But because I know how both can distract, I also consciously turn them off. I prefer to answer e-mails, for example, in the evening and in one go. In the morning, I am too fresh and creative to burden myself with that.
Do you prohibit cellphones in the lecture hall?
No. But I tell the students that their learning capability decreases about 20 percent the moment they open their laptops, for example. With me, however, hardly anyone does that, because my lectures are interesting enough.
Your students want to perhaps simply take notes…
… Which is more effective by hand than typing. Studies also prove that. As soon as you are writing on a laptop, it is multitasking. And no person can multitask, even if media pedagogues would like to promote that: Multitasking as a school subject – that is crazy!
You are experiencing the first generation of digital natives in the lecture hall. Are the students today less attentive than those 20 years ago?
I know at least from colleagues that those beginning their studies in other subjects are no longer like those 20 years ago. Most recently, a surgeon told me that during an operation, he spoke with his assistant. He said he asked the assistant how long the Thirty Years’ War lasted. The assistant answered that he didn’t know, but that he could Google it.
Do young academics concentrate more poorly nowadays?
The attention span is less, just like the frustration threshold. Today, one clicks a few times, and then one leaves it. Earlier, one had to bite through much more. Today, youths do not even learn anymore to have a plan in their heads or to purposefully follow it though. They are constantly distracted.
What does that mean for the economy?
Someone in one of the largest German companies told me that 16-year-old apprentices today can no longer calculate fractions and percentages. One can still teach it to them. But they don’t want to learn that anymore, and they don’t have goals. That is a real problem.
Do the victims of the digital era also then end up in your psychiatric hospital?
Yes, but rarely. A 28-year-old, for example, who plays “World of Warcraft” 18 hours a day and lost his apartment and job. He came to us for about two weeks. I know about worst cases.
What’s your advice to managers who feel enslaved by their cellphones?
I tell them very clearly: Spare yourself meetings where everyone is staring at their cellphone. Plan meetings that are only 20 minutes long, but where you will have everyone’s attention. Then everyone can go back to work. That is effective. Everything else is senseless.
Companies have, in part, gone down that route — for example by stopping sending emails to colleagues in the evenings…
Yes, Volkswagen started that a few years ago, but then the employees changed to their private accounts and communicated with each other there – and therefore worked. Because naturally, he who does his job best, is the one who also works after 6 p.m.
At the end of your book, one has the gloomy sense that the battle has already been waged – and lost.
No, I am not so pessimistic. Even the model blogger Sascha Lobo [a German who writes on the social effects of the Internet] expresses himself critically on questions about the Internet – that is something. People are starting to contemplate the dangers.
How did you manage with your own six children, of whom five are already grown up?
We had it easy with them, because back then there were no smartphones. But when television became too big of a distraction, we threw it out. We had one single computer for everyone, but it was still very slow and was placed in an uncomfortable corner. Everyone was allowed to write emails to their friends in America, but I told them if I find a game on the hard drive, it will be removed. Today, my children are thankful I did that.