Sunday, October 6, 2013

Digital Dilemas

Monday’s Fiji Times carried a story which made for very serious discussions between my wife, our children and I. Titled, “Digital Dementia,” the story by Timoci Vula highlighted a South Korean study that found increased use of digital devices such as smartphones and tablets can contribute to the deterioration in cognitive abilities in children.
Francisco-Xavier Bhagwan absorbed in the virtual
world before giving it up for the month.
The author says smart devices, like any other tool,
should only be taken out of the shed when required. 

If you missed the article, the study conducted by the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul noted the following:
·         Teenagers, who had become so reliant on digital technology, were no longer able to remember everyday details, even simple things such as their phone numbers.
·         Overuse of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain, with heavy users likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped.
·         The right side of the brain was linked with concentration and, when it was underdeveloped, could affect attention and memory span.
·         In 15 per cent of cases, this can lead to the early onset of dementia. In addition to messing with memory, digital overuse is also connected with emotional underdevelopment, with children more at risk than adults as their brains are still growing.

Having just returned from two years of living and studying in South Korea and with my family undertaking a whirlwind tour of Seoul prior to my return, the social impact of new technology was obvious the first time one travels on the subway/ metropolitan railway. Virtual silence as row upon row of bowed heads, with earphones blocking everything out, peered into the world offered to them by their smart-phones or tablets – watching movies or television shows, playing games or chatting on social media or surfing the internet.

Hardly anyone communicated to anyone else.

I assumed that this was part of the culture of silence and respect for the other person’s space and while this may be partly true, an older member of my congregation told me that chatting with your neighbour on the bus or subway was common, until the advent of the smart phone. Now people are becoming more self-absorbed or perhaps absorbed with the virtual reality that the physical world and physical relationships are being ignored.

Sitting at a coffee-shop I would notice couples on dates, sitting opposite or next to each other and ignoring each other while they chatted online with friends (or maybe each other) or played games. I heard that neck strain from the constantly bowed head when using smart devices was becoming a common problem and that there were numerous accidents caused by either drivers using their smart devices or pedestrians so focused on theirs that they weren’t watching where they were walking.

As a communicator by profession, I am very interested in the tools that enhance communication and information gathering. As someone living away from his family, the cheap communication opportunities afforded by the internet and social media were important in maintaining relationships. However one cannot really maintain a relationship or be a virtual parent for too long.

When I returned to Fiji for my first visit with a smartphone, I found that the children got addicted quite quickly to the games and applications on the phone. Tears and tantrums followed withdrawal of the gadget from their small hands.
The fact that our children sometimes are more technologically savvy than the grownups does not mean that they are fully aware of the implications and effect of using these devices.

Just over a week ago as my family walked along the banks of the river Han in Seoul, on our way to a picnic (see last Wednesday’s column), we noticed many people enjoying being outdoors in the South Korean summer. People were, playing, riding bicycles, having their own picnics. There were also many people out enjoying the fresh air. Some however, were simply physically there, their attention – their minds were focused on the gadget in front of them. Perhaps they were looking for the picnic “app.”

There is a false sense of reality that comes with the digital virtual world that we need to be cautious of. There is not personal time unless these gadgets are switched and one disconnects. An attitude of instant gratification is connected to a loss of patience. Sometimes our children cannot differentiate from the virtual or imaginary world and the real one.

I see the use of smart devices as tools of communication. But like all tools, sometimes they just have to be put in the shed until they are needed.

My children, on reflection of the issue of smart devices by our family, have agreed to not use any smart devices and to use the family computers only with parental supervision for the month of July.

I am packing away my smartphone for the month and trying to convince myself that after 2 years of instant communications and near lightspeed internet, I can disconnect from the grid and just enjoy  our wonderful environment and face to face, heart to heart and tanoa to bilo communication.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.” 

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