It's been suspected for some time that excessive use of smartphones turns human gray matter to mush, but scientific evidence has until now has been lacking.
In an article titled "Smartphones is a narcotic for the brain," Shukan Shincho (May 18) reported on the results of a seven-year research project conducted by a team headed by Dr Ryuta Kawashima, a 57-year-old neuroscientist who has served as an advisor to Nintendo.
The project was titled "Effects on the cognition functions of children who use smartphones" and the test subjects were 70,000 primary and middle-school students in Sendai City.
In the first year, the tests, which focused on declining academic performance among children who spent long periods using smartphones, confirmed the decline in academic performance. From the second year, the study included anything other devices that could access the internet, such as tablet computers and PCs.
While efforts were made to fine-tune the research to ensure validity, one uncertain aspect of the cause and effect was difficulty in determining which came first, the chicken or the egg. Or in other words, did the use of smartphones hurt students' performance? Or did already poor students tend to use smartphones more than their more studious peers? This, Kawashima admits, remains a difficult point to establish.
Kawashima nonetheless noted that previous MRI examinations of the brains of students who watched television or played video games for extended periods suffered negative effects of brain development. He hypothesized that similar phenomena would be found with smartphone users.
"We may even hypothesize that things which children tend to find enjoyable may also suppress brain activity," Kawashima writes. To name one example, Kawashima mentions an experiment in South Korea, where a "model school" switched over to all-electronic learning aids, including blackboards and textbooks. While the students appeared to find the materials stimulating, educators eventually confirmed that "the knowledge was not retained" and the experiment was deemed a failure.
Testing of Japanese children in Sendai with smartphones found that while studying at home, some 80% make use of their phones, with over 60% of those surveyed responding that they listen to music, while over 30% play games. About 40% respectively said they view videos or make use of the Line chat application.
In all, Kawashima's survey found that some 60% of students use their smartphones for various applications. Of these, Line users were found to have the lowest academic performance, but users of others were not much better.
The average test scores for Sendai students who did not use smartphones while studying (based on mixed scores for math, Japanese language, science and sociology) was 68 points. Those who used their smartphones for only a single application achieved an average of 65 points. And those who used their phones while switching between multiple applications had the worst grades of all, irrespective of the amount of hours they put into studying.
Students who took part in group chats using Line showed a spectacular dropoff in grades directly proportionate to the time they spent tweaking their phones, with the dropoff in test performance particularly sharp for science (down an average of 4.1 points) and math (down an average of 4.8 points).
Interestingly, the grades of students who had given up participation in group chats using Line did not show marked improvements during the academic year that followed. Kawashima believes that the application's effect on their attention span may have altered their brain functioning, and that more time would be needed for them to achieve recovery.
Kawashima also pointed out that his tests were only done on children over a period of five years. So then, where is this leading? By the time we know, 10 or 20 years from now, the evidence may point to how the use of smartphones not only retards development in youth but may also accelerate aging in adults. But by then it will be too late. So consider this article a warning.
With a sense of anxiety toward the future, Kawashima wrote, "I get the feeling we may soon be facing a time in history when human evolution as we know it came to an end."© Japan Today