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Devices associated with reduced student performance in NZ

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

A new report assessing the impact of devices on learning specifically for NZ students, shows that when the classrooms open, it’s time to reassess the way we use screens in schools

· Most types of devices were negatively associated with PISA scores, even after controlling for student factors

· Schools who reported that they did have capacity for using devices; that teachers had access to resources on how to use devices and that teachers had the skills necessary to integrate these with instruction, demonstrated lower performance on the PISA tests compared to students in schools without those capacities

· Schools with clear policies for device use, with principals who had regular discussion with teachers about using devices for pedagogical purposes, had no improvement in performance in PISA scores

· Browsing the internet for schoolwork was the only activity positively related to PISA scores; all but using emails were negatively related

· PISA scores were lower for students using devices during mathematics compared to those who did not use devices

· Students using devices without their teachers, had significantly lower scores in science

· Greater device use was associated with lower reading performance, however students using devices with their teachers for more than one hour a week were the best readers

“Digital devices are no panacea for the challenges that students and schools face. The data presented here, and elsewhere, show that a digital education requires a careful and evidence- informed approach. This message is urgent, given that the past two decades have seen marked investment in devices in our education system yet large-scale research studies like PISA show either no change or a decline in New Zealand students’ foundational knowledge and skills.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand (NZ) students had among the highest, if not the highest use of digital platforms in class in the word, in both home and school. One well quoted NZ principal has stated that she was not surprised that NZ teens were spending more time online than their peers in most other countries, because schools had encouraged students to use their devices and there was high internet coverage across NZ homes. Indeed, many NZ primary schools push strongly for parents to buy their young children personal devices for learning which then are taken home.

Sensible Screen Use has been contacted by principals, teachers and parent groups alike, feeling pressured to increase the use of these platforms despite evidence that suggests that moderate use of devices may be a more effective way to learn (including to gain digital skills), particularly in the primary years. While previous education minister Nikki Kaye initially stated that the 2020 digital curriculum did not necessarily mean an increase in device use for primary-aged students, this message seems to have been lost. BYOD policies have crept down in age for NZ students in a number of schools.

While evidence suggests that moderate use of digital platforms can enhance learning in particular subjects, frequent use of devices has been associated with reduced learning outcomes in large-scale studies, as well as from a large review of meta-analyses by Hattie & Hamilton (2021).

In addition to this, excessive use of screens is increasingly associated with numerous risks to health for our tamariki and rangatahi; with risks to vision, hearing (with headphone use), risks to physical health, development, sleep, and more. While there is a strong conversation in education noting that what matters is content (what children do on screens), time spent on screens, and what screen use displaces are also highly relevant.

This new report from the MoE, which is to be commended for assessing and acknowledging available research with transparency, highlights the impact of screen use on academic outcomes for NZ high school students. Reviewing this evidence can help us to problem solve, and to get the best that digital technologies can offer to student learning. With large-scale studies highlighting an even greater negative impact for primary-aged students, part of the solution may be to reduce the use of digital platforms in some areas of learning, while focusing on evidence-based use for the greatest gains. For more information see

During lockdowns the usefulness of devices have been highlighted, allowing students to access learning during home confinement, as well as to stay connected with friends. On returning to the classroom however, this new report may give pause to reflect on what has worked well, and what can be reined in. In a recent study indicating a surge in the progression of myopia in children associated with increased screen use and reduced time outdoors, authors state their concern that while lockdowns are temporary, adoption of increased device use could raise risks to children’s vision. This educational report gives gives us even more reason to think carefully.

The report concludes noting that:

“It is, however, important to consider trade-offs with other desirable outcomes. Developing the whole person means making sure our ākonga have skills for modern life, including sufficient technical competence and the ability to think critically about information so that digital devices are used effectively and safely…If schools are to prepare students for full participation in the digital world, then students should be exposed to digital devices at school.”

This is an important point, and digital technologies do have potential for improving learning outcomes when used selectively, as well as appropriately for childrens' age and developmental stage. However, studies show that moderate use of devices in class has a positive association with gaining important digital skills, while more frequent use can have negative impacts. Frequent use of screens in class has not improved outcomes as expected; this report indicates that learning outcomes are reduced, matching international literature. With an increasing body of research outlining health risks associated with excessive screen use in tamariki and rangatahi; educators, principals and Board of Trustees who are responsible for students, have much to consider.

For all research links see

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