People + Process = Performance

Digital Dementia: If it is real, what will the effect be in the workplace?

During the past two weeks or so the news has been abuzz with “digital dementia” affecting teens and 20-somethings.  Most of us are familiar with dementia that strikes the elderly but digital dementia is a new type of cognitive condition affecting those in their teens and early 20s.  According to multiple articles on this topic, digital dementia is characterized as the deterioration of brain function as a result of the overuse of digital technology, such as computers, smart phones and Internet use in general.  This excess use of technology leads to unbalanced brain development, as heavy users are more likely to overdevelop their left brains, leaving their right brains underdeveloped.

Characteristics of “digital dementia” are memory deficits, attention disorders and emotional flattening.  The Telegraph reports that according to recent studies, young people have become so heavily reliant on digital technology that they are no longer able to pay attention to remembering routine details such as their own phone numbers.  One South Korean doctor was quoted as saying that heavy reliance on smartphones creates an imbalance in brain development which leads to the left side of the brain becoming overstimulated while the right side suffers and becomes relatively stunted. Heavy use of smartphones engages the left brain at the expense of the right, leading to deterioration of right side-leaning cognitive abilities and symptoms of “digital dementia,” which include loss of memory, short attention span and problems regulating emotion.

I’m not sure if “digital dementia” is an actual disease or if it’s a way that young people have learned to use technology.  I’ll admit that I don’t know every family member and relatives phone number but then again I never did know those numbers 30 years ago either.  At that time I had them written in an address book.  Today, I keep everything in my cell phone.  An interesting study showed that with the advent of the Internet with search engines and smartphones our ability to recall information itself is lower but our ability to recall where to access that information has increased.  Essentially the Internet and smartphone has become our primary form of external memory, where information is stored collectively outside us.

So what does the above mean to ergonomists and employers?  Does the design of the work need to change to accommodate the new memory habits and short attention spans of the young workforce?  Or, does the way we train and on-board young workers have change?  I think the answer to both questions is yes.

Over the past year I’ve talked to several managers, safety directors and hiring managers who report that their younger workers “don’t know how to work”.  Could it be that our workforce is coming from being so dependent on technology to tell them what to do and it does so in very short chunks that they lack the basic work habits that the generations before them had?  It appears so.  This makes it imperative that employers incorporate human factors into the design of every aspect of the job or they will suffer reductions in productivity and potential increases in errors and injuries.