The new learning killers

Manfred Spitzer

This is described as playing and communication, as if they had forgotten that – as a new study from Stuttgart shows – every fourth child can no longer hop at the school entry health examination. No connection is made.

Life without a brain?

When 70 percent of a computer is destroyed, it becomes unusable. When 70 percent of nerve cells are destroyed in the brain by Parkinson’s disease, the person can continue living quite well. Why is that so? Nerve cells receive electrical signals from other nerve cells which are transmitted to so-called synapses. Each of the 100 billion has 10,000 connections. The number of these connections in your head is thus 100,000,000,000 x 10,000, giving one million billion.

Synapses change when they are used. They grow and enlarge. The given impulse has a bigger effect if the contact area at which the biochemistry takes place is larger. In other words, the “hardware” of the brain always changes when the brain is active, that is when you perceive something, think, feel or want to do something. It is totally irrelevant what you do mentally, the brain changes because every mental task is accompanied by processes in the nerve cells.

That is different in a computer: one component (the so-called CPU) does the calculations, another (the hard disk) does the storage. Nerve cells also process information but because they send impulses to one another the connections between them change – and that is the storage! Processing and storage are thus handled by one and the same structure. This fact, that processing and storage are identical in our brain, is of crucial importance for our understanding of learning. Learning means using our brain and the more we do so we more we learn. The more intensively we experience something or think about something, the more we learn. At the same time one thing is clear. There is one thing that the brain cannot do: not learn.

Infinite storage

Imagine two 40-year-olds. One of them knows German, the other knows German and four other languages. Both now learn a new language. Who can do so better? Everyone will give the same answer to this question as the science of learning also does: the one who already speaks several languages learns faster and better.

It is just the same when we learn to play a new musical instrument or how to use a new tool. This is different with the computer: when the hard disk is 50 percent full, another 50 percent will fit on it; and when it is 90 percent full, 10 percent will still fit on. In contrast, as these examples show, our brain has the paradoxical characteristic that the more can fit in the more it already contains. It never fills up. You build on what you already know. And the more you already know the better you can learn!

This finding, incidentally, is anything but new. For over 150 years the concept has existed of the hermeneutic circle which says that it is always difficult to work oneself into a new situation. Then things become increasingly easy and fast. This has the unfortunate consequence that the less you know the less you will also learn in the future.

That is why we send our children and young people to school and not into the fields and factories. For the window of fast learning closes at about the age of 20 to 25 – that is approximately how long the brain takes to develop. If you have learnt a lot during this period you will be in a position to continue to learn a lot. But anyone who has not learnt much up to this age will have difficulty with lifelong learning.

Learning changes the brain as long as into young adulthood, it becomes more effective, faster, better performing. That has consequences in old age when brain performance declines. The word “De-mentia” comes from the Latin “de” = “descent” and “mens” = “mind”, in other words a descent of the mind. And the same applies to the descent of the mind as to any other descent: the higher we start, the longer it takes until we arrive at the bottom.

There are interesting studies in this respect. Sister Maria, for example, had entered an order at the age of 20 and on that occasion wrote a curriculum vitae – a wonderful text, intelligent and subtle. Then she worked as a teacher until she was 84 years old; and then she continued working, unofficially, as a teacher, until she died died at the age of 101. She had previously undergone a so-called dementia test which showed that her memory was working marvellously. She was clearly not suffering from dementia. Then, after her death, her brain was examined: is was significantly affected by Alzheimer’s disease. From such cases we can deduce that a brain which was well developed in childhood and youth can continue to function well even when suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Everyone can do things in their early years which promote the development of the brain: actively playing music, doing sport and drama, being creative with our hands (painting, craft work, etc.), learning foreign languages and much more. But we can also impair brain development, for example through watching television.

Watching TV affects university degrees

In a study carried out by German paediatricians, about two thousand five-year-olds were asked to draw a person. At the same time their mothers were asked how much television the children watched each day. The more they watched, the less differentiation there was in the drawings (Figure 1).

Fig. 1: “Draw a person” was the task which five-year-old children are happy to be asked to do. The top line shows examples of the drawings of children who watched less than one hour of television per day; the bottom line of children with a daily television consumption of three hours or more (based on Winterstein & Jungwirth, 2006, Kinder- und Jugendarzt 37: 205–211).

The same result was produced by longitudinal data on television consumption: more than 40 percent of children who at the age of five watched less than one hour of television had a university degree at the age of 30. For children with more than three hours of TV consumption at the age of five the share of adults with a university degree was barely ten percent (Figure 2).


täglicher Fernsehkonsum in Stunden = Daily television consumption in hours
Uni-Abschluss = University degree
Beruf = Profession
Schule = School
keine = None

Fig. 2: The influence of daily television consumption  in childhood and adolescence on professional qualifications at the age of 26. Every column corresponds to 100% of the respective subgroup with a daily television consumption of less than one hour, one to two hours, two to three hours, and more than three hours (red: no qualification; dark grey: school leaving exams; light grey: professional qualification; white: university degree. Graphic: author)

Experiments were conducted in the USA with mice to test these data. Young mice were exposed for six hours a day to the sound of children’s TV and flickering coloured light. This kind of “enforced television” happened throughout all of their childhood and adolescence which in mice lasts only a few weeks. After that there was a gap of ten days in order not to measure “acute confusion” caused by the sound and light but the effects on the development of the animals. As the comparison with control animals without sound and flickering light showed, the television mice were hyperactive, displayed a greater readiness to take risks, had learning and memory problems as well as a lack of interest in new things. Now humans are not mice. But the evidence about the effects of television consumption in childhood is nevertheless clear. Because children who watch a lot of television in childhood are equally inattentive, lack curiosity, are willing to take risks and have poor memory.

Knowledge lies in the hands

We know since 1997 that movement creates greater numbers of nerve cells. When you go jogging, nerve cells in your brain are replenished. The best exercise for the brain is therefore jogging! But once the cells have been replenished, you have to use them to connect them with the already existing nerve cells. Crosswords, for example, are unsuitable for this purpose because they only call up knowledge you already possess. New cells, however, have to store new information in order to be used properly. Busying yourself with your grandchildren or children, who constantly ask awkward questions, is a good way to use your new nerve cells and to ensure that they are integrated into the existing networks. We might also say that the sports teacher breeds the hardware which his colleagues then fill with information.

But the connection between learning and movement is not thereby exhausted for knowledge builds on movement. The more finger games you play in kindergarten, the better you will be as an adult in mathematics. For numbers get into the brain via the fingers: not for nothing does the word “digit” have two meanings: “finger” and “number”! None of the high-level areas in the brain connected with the thinking have any direct contact with the external world but receive their information from areas which perform sensory or motor tasks.

That is why there is nothing more stupid than putting babies in front of the smartphone or tablet. Because children cannot learn any of the specific movements for individual objects if they keep swiping the same featureless glass surface with always the same movement. Every object has to be taken hold of separately in order thus to grasp it with the understanding. Furthermore, every object has a different surface, a different form and feels different depending on its material (plastic, wood, metal or fabric). A child must experience these differences with its senses. Hence it is little short of criminal to sell a baby cot for zero to two-year olds with a screen. Children do not learn anything by this means.

As everyone knows, children like to move. They want to try things out, carry objects from A to B, pick them up and let them fall, and so on. This is by no means as senseless as might appear at first glance. Rather, the child keeps trying to discover with all its activities how something functions, how it works, how one stone can be built on another, etc., and in this way they learn and keep learning. This only works in the real world, with real stones, proper sand or actual water.

It does not, in contrast, work digitally! If therefore about 8,000 German kindergartens work with the “Schlaumäuse”(Clever Mice) software from Microsoft this is not an educational measure but a programme for illiteracy. If increasing numbers of kindergartens introduce tablets for (s)wiping, then parents should not be surprised if the education of their children is good for nothing more than cleaning jobs!

No educational equality through tablets

On 1 October 2015 the newspaper Tagesschau reported: “Smartphones put children under stress”. Data was collected from 8 to 14-year olds which showed that 48 percent felt themselves distracted, above all when doing homework, and 24 percent were under stress because someone was constantly communicating something trivial, for example “I’m just eating gummy bears”. Twenty percent said they had difficulties at school because of their smartphone.

London academics published a study in May 2015 in which they identified 90 schools in Greater London which had introduced a ban on mobile phones in the years from 2002 to 2012. The researchers obtained the marks of all of the more than 130,000 pupils for a period from five years before to five years after the ban on mobile phones. Then the average mark for all schools and pupils was calculated in such a way that the ban on mobiles started for all pupils on day zero.

What was the result? As soon as one year after the ban on mobile phones the performance of the pupils had improved significantly. In the following years that improvement increased even further. It also showed that the worse the pupils had been before the ban the more their performance benefited from it. In other words: the 20 percent of the best pupils did not improve after the mobile phone ban but the improvement was most noticeable in the 20 percent of the worst pupils.

Some years previously, the opposite experiment had been conducted in the USA: 17-year-old pupils who did not yet have a mobile were given an iPhone. Then the researchers waited a year. What happened? The pupils became worse in school, complained more about distraction and worse learning performance.

So let’s be clear: when we hand out smartphones pupils become worse, when we ban them they improve. This result coincides with what we already know about the effects of computers in schools: no one improves but the performance of the weaker pupils becomes even worse. Hence it is wrong to claim that equality in education requires the distribution of digital devices particularly to the weaker pupils. That is ideologically driven wishful thinking; as has been shown, equality in education does not arise through digitalisation in schools. On the contrary: the unsocial distribution of education is reinforced through the use of digital media. But that is not something ministers of education want to hear.

Googling is not knowledge

It is often said that knowledge is no longer important because everything can be googled. That is wrong because the use of a search engine requires prior knowledge: you can only google meaningfully if you already know something about what you are looking for; if you do not know anything about the field in which you are looking for information then Google will not help you. Because you can only differentiate between what is true and what is false in the many hits shown by the search engine if you are already familiar with the relevant field. Brains don’t do downloads! Rather, people concern themselves with an area and that changes their brain. That is what we call learning.

Six years ago, scientists showed that when information is offered through a book, newspaper, magazine or Google and it is then measured a few days later, the information obtained by googling is the least likely to stick. Googling is therefore the worst medium for learning. But if it is the case that you require prior knowledge for googling and no knowledge gets into your brain by doing it, then it follows quite clearly that you should not google in school – and you should do it least of all if you want to be particularly good at googling once you have left school! We learn to google by acquiring a lot of knowledge. And when we know a lot then we can google. It is not possible to outsource knowledge. Our brain is not a computer. But the false image of our brain as a computer is consistently used to drive forward the digitalisation of kindergartens and schools.

There is no digital learning

Humans have learnt for hundreds of thousands of years in the way that they learn, namely through imitation, insight or experience. A study published in 2014 with the title Der Zusammenhang zwischen Handyverwendung, akademischer Leistungsfähigkeit, Angst und Lebenszufriedenheit bei 17-Jährigen (The connection between the use of mobile phones, academic performance, anxiety and satisfaction with life in 17-year-olds) shows: the more they use their smartphone the worse they are at school and the more anxious they are, and both of those things make them more dissatisfied with their life.

Another study has shown that the more time young people spend in front of the screen, the less empathy they have for parents and friends. Empathy is lost since social learning only occurs when we are together with people. The app most frequently used by six-year-olds in Germany is Facebook. Even three to five-year-olds spend half an hour on the smartphone. That is frightening because social skills cannot be learnt at the screen. How are they supposed to learn empathy at the screen when there is no one there?

Attack on the will

How do we learn to develop our will and make a decision, “do our thing” as the German rock musician and composer Udo Lindenberg would say? We learn by doing, just like we learn to walk and speak – with thousands of attempts and ever new experiences. We also learn volition by repeatedly wanting something and then doing it: children sing a song, build a tower, climb a tree, paint a picture, play football with their friends. In all these cases they first have an idea of what they want to do and then they put that idea into practice. And then they are proud of what they have done – by themselves. But the child has not just learnt to sing, build, climb trees, paint or play football. No, it performed an act of will and on each occasion quite incidentally also learnt: I can have an idea and put this idea into the world.

A smartphone sabotages this process of developing the will in multiple ways: there is no time to form an idea for ourselves when we look at our device 200 times a day and it tells us what needs to be done. And when we want to put an idea into practice the smartphone is a constant disruptive influence, it distracts us.

I know of no greater killer to stop us developing the will and our decision-making powers than a smartphone. Not for nothing was “smombie” – that is smartphone zombie – the saying of 2015 among young people. Young people themselves have already understood that the smartphone influences the process of developing the will and decision-making! Our politicians haven’t yet.

Let us just recall: digital media and in particular the smartphone have been shown to prevent learning, the development of the will and empathy in children and young people. But at the same time learning, development of the will/decision-making, and empathy are the three pillars of our society. If learning has ceased, how are we supposed to learn to think and make judgements independently? How are we supposed to go and vote in elections if we cannot make a decision? And when there is no longer empathy then there is no longer any solidarity either.

According to the present state of our knowledge, digital information technology has been shown to harm the physical, emotional and social development of young people, and thus their health, if it is used uncritically. We cannot simply allow this development to continue in this way and abandon our next generation irresponsibly to the profit interests of Apple, Google and Microsoft.

This article is based on a lecture given in Hannover on 19 November 2016 at the “Right to Childhood” conference of the German Association of Waldorf Kindergartens.

About the author: Prof. Dr. Dr. Manfred Spitzer is medical director of the Psychiatric University Clinic in Ulm.