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Do smartphones in school affect educational performance?

There are several views on smartphones in schools. Some believe the smartphone is a portable learning device offering educational opportunities, particularly for lower socioeconomic groups for whom it may be the students only device. Others argue that phones are a source of constant distraction in schools. Educational expert Dr Pasi Sahlberg believes that smartphones are the main reason for NZ and Australia slipping down the PISA ratings, particularly in reading, science, and maths.

Evidence seems to back this up, with research showing that removing smartphones from school increases performance by 6.4%, or by 14% in more disadvantaged students (Beland & Murphy, 2015). Swedish experts have said that banning smartphones in schools is 'as obvious as banning smoking.'

The need to teach responsible smartphone use is one theory supporting students' phone access. Others argue that teens have not developed full self-control, and that to disadvantage learning in children who are still developing is to do them a disservice. They note that many adults struggle to regulate their phone use, that smartphones and other portable devices have been developed with persuasive design with the aim to make them as addictive as possible, and that phones do not need to be used as a learning platform to address responsible use. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) has found that more than four out of five adults (86%) report that they constantly or often check their email/texts or social media accounts, and that this was associated with higher stress levels.


Data from the Pew Research Centre in 2018 has reconfirmed previous results that over 50% of teens report feeling addicted to their smartphones. In addition, 90% of teens said spending too much time online is a problem for teenagers, with 60% saying it's a major problem. However, this report also asked questions that consider compulsive problematic use, such as those asked in general addiction assessments, 'have you tried to cut back?' Many teens (over 50%) had tried to cut back on their smartphone use, but, like most compulsive habits, with little success (1,2).

Relevant to school students, smartphones have been found to interrupt attention in several ways.


1) Internally, by users thoughts drifting to their phone, perhaps from a desire for more immediate gratification than tasks that are not seen as rewarding. The users then engage in a chain of subsequent task-unrelated acts on the smartphone, extending the period of interruption.


2) Externally, a cue from the environment can capture the user's attention, either directly from the smartphone (alerts), or by another trigger such as viewing someone else using their phone. The distraction occurs not only for the duration of the interruption, but focus is reduced and performance errors continue after this, with studies showing 'resumption errors' in task performance for a period following this event.


Even the presence of a smartphone has been found to impact on cognitive performance.


Multi-tasking, defined as the simultaneous use of more than one form of media and which often occurs on a smartphone, has been found to increase the time it takes to complete a task, to increase errors, and to reduce attention, despite student perception often being the opposite (3,4,5,6,7).   


Cyberbullying and the increased risk of self-harm/suicide by victims are significant reasons why smartphone use in schools is being reassessed in other regions. Several websites and organisations can support if you have these concerns for your child.

References not included in hyperlinks:


1. American Psychological Association, (March 20th, 2006). Multitasking: Switching costs.


2. Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Salo, E., Carlson, S., Salonen, O., Lanka, K., Palmela-Aro, K., & Alho, K. (2016). Media multitasking is associated with distractibility and increased prefrontal activity in adolescents and young adults. Neuroimage, 1 (134): 113-121.


3. Ophir, E., Nass., & Wagner, A. (2009). Cognitive control in multitaskers. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A,106 (37): 15583–15587.


4. Wood, E., Zivcakova, P., Gentile, P., Archer, K., De Pasquale, D., & Nosko, A. (2011).Examining the impact of off-task multi-tasking with technology on real-time classroom learning. Computers & Education, 58 (1): 365-374.


5. Weinschenk, S. (2012).The True Cost Of Multi-Tasking. Psychology Today.

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