By Peter Hensinger, June 2019

Effects of digitalisation on the education system.

Photo: © lumen digital

“Digital education” should not be interpreted as teachers using digital media and software as useful aids in lessons, that pupils learn Word, Power Point or Excel, evaluate experiments with programs, carry out statistical calculations or make and edit digital films. These are the basic skills today which we learn in upper middle school. Digital education reform is about the realignment of the whole education system. Just as in Industry 4.0 robots control production independently, computers and algorithms are intended to control the educational happening autonomously.  

The concept for this comes from industry and not from education studies. Thus actors from the IT industry are advising the German education ministry in these questions: from Bitkom, the Gesellschaft für Informatik (GI, German Informatics Society) through Microsoft, VW, SAP to Telekom – everyone is represented. Those who are not represented are paediatricians, educators, learning psychologists or neuroscientists who study the consequences of the use of screen media in children and adolescents. 

Thinking outside the box not wanted

There is no such thing as “digital education”. No one learns and thinks digitally. Neither learning processes nor education can be digitalised, at best the study materials can be. The concept of “digital education” is misleading and shaped by the belief in the total measurability of the world and controllability of all cognitive and social processes. What is described as individualised teaching in the digital concept of education is frontal teaching without the person. The social counterpart is the speaking screen. The socialising, community-building setting of the class as a group disappears, the atmosphere of learning – produced by the teacher – gives way to isolation, technical coldness, predictability and conditioning. It is not too far-fetched to see this as a break with the democratic, humanist task of education. The goal of education is no longer the comprehensively educated and fully rounded Homo politicusas instituted in the ideas of the early nineteenth century educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt, but the passively functioning Homo oeconomicus.  

A school whose educational task is reduced to the communication of expert information outside any ethical context produces one-track specialists, conforming workers and employees. To this end the goal is not to teach independent thinking but an exploitable demeanour – that lies at the heart of the skills orientation. 


We are dealing with a generation of pupils today whose childhood has been shaped by the smartphone. That leads to negative, irreversible effects on brain development. We are dealing with pupils whose sensory experiences are largely reduced to swiping a screen, who are distanced from nature as a result and conditioned for consumption at an early stage. The consequences are severe. 

Decline in reading:In 1992, fifty percent of parents still read aloud to their children, in 2007 this had fallen to a mere twenty-five percent. The proportion of non-readers among children who have never picked up a book has almost quadrupled: in 2005 it was still seven percent, in 2007 it had risen to 17 percent, and in 2014 to twenty-five percent. For many children, school is the only place in which they can be inspired to read books. The importance of reading ability for education, structured thinking and learning in all subjects is undisputed.  

Inhibition of language development:Virtual communication via Facebook or Whatsapp inhibits language development. In children, above all, playing, learning and communicating via a screen has negative consequences because hearing the other person with the associated body language is separated from the context, facial expression, tone of voice, ambiguity, irony, warmth or coldness.  

A new US study, presented at the conference of US paediatricians in 2017, shows that language development deteriorates the more frequently digital media are used. 

Loneliness and social isolation:If in 1987 children still played with one another for six hours, this was reduced to two hours twenty years later. But they did use electronic media for four hours instead of two. In 2017 they used electronic media for ten hours per day – an effect of the smartphone. The consequence of virtualisation is loneliness and a change in social behaviour.  

Loss of capacity for empathy:The study by the US psychologist Sara Konrath has shown that an increase in the use of technology in everyday life leads to a great reduction in empathy. Interest in the other wanes in a world which is concerned above all with satisfying own needs and self-promotion. Because the development of the capacity for empathy is conditional upon direct physical perception and direct human interaction. 

Addiction:Smartphones are a substitute for real human needs such as belonging, recognition of achievements and autonomy. Inbuilt reward mechanisms tie us to the devices and switch off our self-control. According to a new study from the German health insurance provider Deutsche Angestellten-Krankenkasse (DAK), 8.4 percent of male adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12 and 25 met the criteria for addiction based on the so-called “Internet Gaming Disorder Scale”. The dramatic rise in Internet and gaming addiction led the journal of the German Medical Association, Deutsches Ärzteblatt, to raise the alarm in December 2016. We know meanwhile that Internet-dependence “is frequently associated with suicidal thoughts, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, aggression, deviance and substance-related and addictive disorders”. 

Attention deficit disorder:Digital media cannibalise time. In order to manage all the tasks that apparently need doing, the answer is multitasking: doing homework while alongside tweeting, emailing, responding on Whatsapp, liking and listening to music. But people aren’t build for multitasking. The ability to concentrate on a matter, be immersed in it, is an elementary requirement for successful learning and work. 

Constant stress through clicks and kicks: People have become intertwined with their smartphone. When a young person arrives at an alpine farm with their parents, the first question is: is there WiFi? If not, they are thrown into crisis. Because their social frame of reference is missing. Being offline means social isolation for the young person. Fomo, fear of missing out, is the name given to this new state of stress. It is the fear of not being able to react in real time. Permanent use of media is stressful. And when there is stress, information is no longer moved from the working memory to the long-term memory. There are no longer the periods of rest and processing which memory development requires. Moments of creative boredom, of musing – often a source of new ideas – are pushed away or can no longer be coped with. 

Children out of control:Parents give a smartphone to their child because they think that constant accessibility provides security in an insecure world. Parents were still able to control what the child played on their desktop PC and for how long. As a rule they no longer have any control over the mobile smartphone. This can be seen in that the majority of children and young people call up inappropriate pages – above all violence and pornography. This surfing behaviour is also stored on the feedback channels to reinforce users in these particular habits. Anyone who has visited such pages is inundated in sexual advertising. The inappropriate content offered can have a traumatising effect and lead to misconceptions, a false outlook and relationship problems. 

Rise in headache and sleep disorders:Problems in going to sleep and sleeping through the night affected 47.5 percent of Germans in 2010, in 2016 this had risen to 78.9 percent. In the period from 2005 to 2015 the share of 18 to 27-year-olds diagnosed with headache rose by forty-two percent. One point three million young adults are affected by a medically diagnosed pounding, beating and stabbing pain in their head, 400,000 more than in 2005. The prescription rate for medication against migraine rose by 58 percent among 18 to 27-year-olds in the period from 2005 to 2015 (BARMER Medical Report, 20 February2017). The 2016 DAK study concluded that lack of concentration, behavioural problems, lack of movement and the associated health problems had increased greatly among primary school pupils. 

Electrosmog:Smartphones and tablets are used in close proximity to the body. Through apps they transmit and receive pulsed, polarised microwave radiation almost without a break. WiFi is becoming the most widely used frequency. The state of research on the effects of electromagnetic WiFi fields (at 2,450 MHz) on human beings is unambiguous: findings in over 100 studies documented in the WHO database show that that normal exposure can lead to concentration problems, headaches, ADHD, damage to sperm up to and including DNA strand breaks and thus to cancer. Electrosmog is a cell stressor. 

iDisorder – by order of the state

These ten side effects clearly illustrate the dangers to which children are exposed. The American psychology professor Larry Rosen, who has investigated the psychological effects in his book iDisorder,argues that digital media produce a new disorder which combines the elements of many psychiatric illnesses. He calls it iDisorder. 

An alliance of lobbyists in politics and the economy, supported by third party professorial experts and highly active foundations, has pushed through a digital pact with the state. “Digital first. Concerns second” – this motto hides “Profit first. Thinking second”. Irreversible facts are to be created while excluding education studies and life sciences, the negative consequences of which may then, at best, be critically commented on. 

In phase one, which we are going through at the moment, teachers are trained to be technology coaches by IT providers. They learn to use the products of the provider concerned in lessons. In phase two, fully automated e-learning systems with synthetic voices will take over teaching. The teacher becomes superfluous. That is the dehumanisation of school. We cannot abandon our children and young people to the influences of and changes brought about by digital media. But without a solution to these risks we are abandoning them. 

We need more well-trained teachers, more school social workers and psychologists, more hostelling trips into the country, smaller classes, money for music and drama, for project days and beautiful schools. Education is the ability to categorise knowledge within a value system, the ability to act in an ethically responsible way. Its goal is the self-determined personality with critical power of judgement actively involved in shaping society. 

About the author: Peter Hensinger heads the Science section in the “Diagnose-Funk e.V.” environmental and consumer organisation. Contact:peter.hensinger(at)

Note: Detailed references in iDisorder im Digi-Talwhich also includes the unabridged version of this contribution. Download: |