Media  International Exchange  2022.12.02

The Korean case tells us a lot about what the "Homo numericus" might look like

Le Monde on November 25th, 2022

This article was initially published in French in Le Monde newspaper on 25. November 2022, as part of a series of monthly columns on Asian economies. The original article can be found here:

Korean Peninsula

Column by Sébastien Lechevalier, Professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), Senior Researcher at Maison franco-japonaise (UMIFRE 19, Tokyo) and at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS, Tokyo).

A Korean study cross-references the academic performance of the digital generation with smartphone usage patterns, reports Sébastien Lechevalier in his column. The effects are contrasting

Column. South Korea has the highest smartphone penetration rate in the world for the population as a whole (95 percent of Koreans over the age of 18 owned one in 2019), but also for elementary, middle and high school students in particular. This is not without consequences for the cognitive abilities of young Koreans.

Sunyoung Han, a scholar specialized in education science, measured the impact of early use and diversity of smartphone use (educational or leisure) on self-directed learning ability and academic performance ("Impact of smartphones on students: How age at first use and duration of usage affect learning and academic progress," Technology in Society No. 70, 2022).

Until this study, empirical research on these issues was inconclusive. On the one hand, it has shown that the educational use of smartphones increases students' motivation and ability to communicate, which has a positive effect on learning processes and performance. But they also identified, on the other hand, negative effects on the body and mind due to addictive behaviors.

Elementary school level, the critical threshold

The originality and strength of this article is that it takes very specific account of the effects on learning and academic performance, mobilizing data from a 2018 longitudinal survey in Seoul of the behavior of almost three thousand young people born in 2000, almost two-thirds of whom had already used a smartphone at the time of the survey.

This database includes information on age of first use, daily duration, main motivation (education, leisure), but also on learning abilities and academic performance.

First of all, the age of first use affects the daily time spent later on with the phone and causes forms of addiction. The critical threshold is at the elementary school level. By contrast, the first use of a phone after middle school does not have significant negative effects.

Leisure or education

The impact differs depending on whether the smartphone is used for leisure or education. In the first case, this use increases the risk of addiction and reduces the ability to learn independently, which is not true in the second case - provided that we can accurately distinguish the two.

However, the author is cautious in interpreting her results, since she finds an overall negative effect of early use and recreational use on math and English scores... but not in Korean!

The Korean case teaches us a lot about what "Homo numericus" could look like, to use Daniel Cohen's expression (Homo Numericus: the coming civilization, Albin Michel, 2022), as South Korea is a laboratory in this field.

The "smart phone" can certainly help us in our daily lives and contribute to facilitating access to information and our openness to the world. But if its use is poorly controlled, especially for our children, it can produce exactly the opposite effects, marked by addiction, withdrawal and generalized dumbing down.