What is Digital Amnesia and How Can You Prevent It?

Technology has changed the way we live, think, learn and remember. We're often one with our devices, but to what extent does this affect our memory?
What is Digital Amnesia and How Can You Prevent It?

Last update: 16 September, 2022

The concept of “digital amnesia” refers to the effect that technology has on the brain, specifically on our memory. The impact of technology on everyday life is devastating. In fact, nowadays, we’re witnessing digitalization from childhood to old age.

New advances and new applications are emerging every day. Digital devices facilitate our daily tasks. They’re also an essential tool for work as well as leisure time and social relations.

However, have we had time to thoroughly analyze their impact beyond the instrumental? This profound psychological, physiological, and sociological transformation is of growing concern to scientists in various fields.

The brain is very vulnerable to this plethora of stimuli designed to anticipate users’ needs. This has led to a big question: will this atrophy our memories?

What is digital amnesia?

Since 2007, there’s been a growing interest in the effect of technology on memory. In a 2011 publication in the journal Science, Professors Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner first discussed the “Google effect” – That is, the tendency to forget any information that’s easily accessible online.

From 2015 to 2016, cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab conducted a series of surveys of people across Europe, the United States, and India. The aim of the study was to ask them about the impact technology had on their daily lives.

The research found that there’s a direct relationship between being able to obtain a piece of information and not memorizing it quickly. The term “digital amnesia” was then coined.

In other words, digital amnesia is our inclination not to memorize what we conveniently get on the Internet or on mobile devices. We tend to remember where we have the information rather than the information itself.

How does digital amnesia occur?

The study of digital amnesia is a growing field. In reality, there are several theories on how digitization can affect our memory.

One of them is that, by feeling thatwe can always get what we want with a single click, we don’t make an effort to memorize anything and slow down our learning process. In this way, the information only remains in our short-term memory.

On the other hand, using all our senses during the memorization of information (multisensory memory) facilitates its retention. Considering that, when manipulating digital devices, we use the sense of vision almost exclusively, and this use of fewer stimuli can also contribute to poor memorization.

cell phones
Mobile phones accompany us everywhere, and we tend to trust that the information is there blindly. That takes work away from the memory.

What figures do we know?

The aforementioned Kaspersky Lab research yielded the following results:

  • Thirty-four percent of respondents in Europe and 44% of Americans said their smartphone was their memory.
  • Digital amnesia was present in both younger and older adults.
  • Half of Americans, when faced with a question, consulted the Internet before trying to remember it by themselves.
  • Fifty percent of respondents in India weren’t interested in remembering the information, but in where they could find it.
  • Out of 10 people, eight admitted that they use their digital devices much more today than they did five years ago.

 A study published in 2020, conducted in India, found that approximately 48 % of respondents don’t know what digital amnesia is. Meanwhile, 41.5 % would panic if they lost their cell phone. -Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Studies, 2020; 2(3): 23-31.

In a recent study conducted by Shakti Swaminathan, 550 Indian college students between the ages of 18 and 22 were surveyed. Some of the most salient findings are as follows:

  • Only 15.6% memorize the information they need to have at their fingertips. In contrast, 66% search online for the information they need.
  • 30% of the study participants would feel sad if they lost their cell phones.
  • Nearly 70% cannot remember phone numbers.
  • 36% are concerned about their dependence on technology.

What are the consequences?

The consequences of digitization on our ability to memorize are not all negative. It may be good to delegate certain mundane matters to mobile devices and let the brain concentrate on what’s really important.

In contrast, there is the possibility that this may mean less stimulation and, therefore, poorer development of neural connections. It should be noted that these are the key to memory.

Failure to memorize certain information can be problematic in the following scenarios:

  • We need to remember it, and we don’t have access to an online storage or search device.
  • We can’t store it on digital media because it’s not safe or advisable (such as in the case of passwords).
  • We need to internalize and remember the information for the long term.
  • We lose the device where we store the information.

Another concern around the subject is the security of storing sensitive data on digital media and becoming victims of hackers.

Like this article? You may also like to read: Memory Loss and Forgetfulness: Are They Normal?

Beyond digital amnesia

The effects of digitization on the brain are not limited to memory. Several aspects of mental health may be impaired by the excessive use of digital media. For example, this has been linked to attention deficits, irritability, and aggressive behavior.

The fact that communication and socialization depend to a large extent on social networks and digital devices leads to an undermining of human contact. In the case of children, early exposure to this phenomenon can lead to the loss of skills such as empathy.

Moreover, one of the phenomena that have been associated with the onset of digital amnesia is cell phone addiction. This leads to sleep disorders that further impair memory. At the same time, the loss of devices containing important personal and professional information is capable of generating anxiety, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s very difficult to safeguard privacy in the digital world. The presence of personal information in the cloud exposes it to multiple computer crimes, such as fraud, espionage, pornography, and cyber-murder.

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How do I know if I have digital amnesia?

Researcher and clinical psychologist Pragya Lodha proposes to answer the following questions to determine if you’re experiencing digital amnesia:

  • Where do you store your information? Is it always on digital devices?
  • Do you spend too much time on digital media?
  • Has your means of communicating become exclusively virtual?
  • Has your behavior negatively affected your work? For example, do you have lapses, forget your responsibilities, or fail to fulfill your commitments and tasks?
  • Are you unable to imagine a technology-free zone?
  • Do you feel lost without your digital device?
digital amnesia
Excessive cell phone use, even in bed and late at night, affects your ability to memorize things.

How can you prevent digital amnesia?

If, after answering the above questions, you feel like you may be facing a case of digital amnesia, there are steps you can take about it. Lodha says that anything you can do to maintain your mental health will help.

Digital detox is essential. Disconnect when sharing with your family or partner and try to motivate this behavior in others.

Connect with nature and make plans outdoors. When you travel or go on outings, try to enjoy and truly be present during your experiences. Build memorable memories. Don’t try to photograph, share, or capture every moment on your digital devices.

Get in the habit of memorizing information that’s important to you. Strive to keep the data you store secure, and invest in information security rather than in decorating hardware.

No one doubts that the advances in technology radically transforms our lives. However, much remains to be elucidated about the effect it has on the brain.

As part of our self-care and health maintenance, it’s advisable to ask ourselves whether we’re becoming dependent on such devices. It’s not about not enjoying technology, but about using it wisely.

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  • Swaminathan S. Digital Amnesia: The Smart Phone and the Modern Indian Student. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Studies, 2020;2(3):23-31.
  • Hesselmann G. No conclusive evidence that difficult general knowledge questions cause a “Google Stroop effect”. A replication study. PeerJ. 2020;8:e10325.
  • Lodha P. Digital Amnesia: are we headed towards another amnesia. Indian Journal of Mental Health, 2019;6(1):18-22.
  • Dirin A, Alamäki A, Suomala J. Digital Amnesia and Personal Dependency in Smart Devices: A Challenge for AI. Proceedings of Fake Intelligence Online Summit 2019.
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  • Kaspersky Lab. The rise and impact of digital amnesia. Why we need to protect what we no longer remember. Disponible en: https://media.kasperskycontenthub.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/100/2017/03/10084613/Digital-Amnesia-Report.pdf
  • Sparrow B, Liu J, Wegner DM. Google effects on memory: cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science. 2011;333(6043):776-8.