Learning & development

November 16 2017

Mobile phones in the classroom: A helpful or harmful hindrance?

Kelly Allen MAPS MCEDP
By Educational and developmental psychologist

Smartphones are proving useful educational tools - but psychological research highlights the risk of their presence on the classroom

My three year-old daughter has rarely seen an old-school phone without a screen. Nevertheless, she still places any vaguely telephone-shaped object, such as a shoe, to her ear with a passionate, “HELLO”. Somehow, I find this more comforting than her blankly staring into the sole of the shoe numbly thudding away at pretend buttons in imitation of the way she’s mostly seen a phone used.

If she was using her shoe as a smartphone, I might start to feel the first prickles of discomfort. Not a discomfort born from nostalgia for retro telecommunications devices, but from unease at my daughter’s early acquisition of our facile smartphone obsession. Virtually no modern setting is too sacred to escape the mobile telephone’s remorseless cacophony. Including schools. This is an issue because most adults have skills that help them balance their phone habits with the nuances of socialising and the need to prioritise their time. However, in young people – particularly in secondary and tertiary settings – we are seeing concerning trends related to phone use.

One study that followed the impact of schools banning mobile phones found that mobile phones can have a negative impact on learning through distraction and that their removal from the classroom can yield an improvement in student performance, especially for the most vulnerable. In a tertiary setting, Kuznekoff and Titsworth found that students who did not use smartphones while participating in a lecture wrote 62 per cent more information in their notes and were able to recall more information than their phone-using counterparts. A subsequent study by the same authors found similar results. This time, students who did not use their mobile phones, or used them for class-related content, earned higher grades and scored higher on information recall than students who used their phone for unrelated purposes.

Interviews with 628 high school students on their perceptions of mobile phones in the classroom revealed that, not only were the vast majority of them already using their phones at school, but also their views as a group were largely discrepant. Most students (70 per cent) could identify benefits associated with mobile phones in the classroom, such as increased engagement, motivation for learning, creativity and productivity. However, almost a third of the cohort reported concerns regarding disruption and misuse of mobile phones – particularly under exam conditions – and harmful activities such as cyber bullying and sexting. As for teacher attitudes towards mobile phone use, the research has been mixed, with some researchers demonstrating positive support for mobile phones in the classroom  and others suggesting they should be left at home).

Anecdotal reports also reveal successful phone integration in the classroom. Today’s smartphones are microcomputers with the capacity to provide many of the advantages that technology can afford in terms of accessing a broad, deep and meaningful education. A plethora of phone apps have been encouraged by schools, particularly those that support wellbeing by building on relaxation skills and offering help seeking resources. Smartphones have endless possibilities as educational tools, which is why some schools tolerate them. Others ban them, or at least, attempt to do so.

Then there is the small matter of social skills. While smartphones do offer opportunities to connect with others and facilitate a sense of belonging and community, there is a time and place. I recently overheard a small child ask her mother why Daddy had an angry face. A subtle glance over at the next table revealed that “Daddy” was on his smartphone. There was no angry face, but rather a serious, engrossed-reading-face summoned from the undecorated monotropic concentration needed to focus on reading small font in a noisy cafe. These scenarios make me question whether smartphone use is helping or hindering the social development of children (not to mention the social abilities of the smartphone users themselves).

So what is the solution for schools and parents?

Ultimately, good sense must prevail as we harness the strengths of the technology and practice everything in moderation. Smartphone use will remain an ongoing issue for parents and schools, particularly in terms of content and what is considered suitable, and also how it should be managed. There will always be misuse as we have seen recently with students bring mobile phones into examination settings. Schools should be at the forefront of ensuring their mobile phone use policies and practice match current telecommunication technologies.

With problematic phone use now considered a risk behaviour alongside alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, schools should ensure they are addressing the psychological, social and health issues associated with technology (e.g. a lack of sleep from late night phone use, cyber bullying, sexting) . By building some of the health-related implications of technology into the curriculum, we may be able to mitigate potential harm and promote the safe, controlled and productive use of mobile phones.

Both schools and parents have a role to play in boundary setting, providing guidance with appropriate and inappropriate phone use, and teaching self-regulation and self-control skills. Parents can and should serve as appropriate role models for telephone use. That’s not to say that parents should only use their smartphones in private but they should try to employ the same phone etiquette they are trying to teach their children.

Ultimately, school is a microcosm of wider society. Just as using a smartphone may be unacceptable during a job interview, neither is it in the middle of a classroom. Knowing that certain behaviour is acceptable in some places, but not in others is at the crux of how young people can better use mobile phones responsibly and fruitfully at school.