Some Thoughts about Cellphones in Classrooms

December 17, 2023

*** Article updated on 2024-05-12 ***

CAVEAT: As subject matter experts in the areas of digital literacy and internet safety, we are often asked about our opinion on the use of cellphones in schools. We acknowledge the fact that we are not school teachers or principals who have to deal with this issue on a daily basis. However, having presented to over 600,000 youth, thousands of teachers, and hundreds of principals we have a fairly good understanding of the challenges and concerns they are confronted with specific to this issue. This article is written based upon our interactions with teachers and principals, combined with the good academic research we have found and reviewed in the preparation of this article.

In today’s digitally connected world, the presence of cellphones in classrooms has become a contentious issue. Parents, educators, policymakers, and students themselves are all engaged in a debate about the role of mobile devices in the learning environment. On one hand, cellphones are seen as distractions that hinder student performance, disrupt classrooms, and divert attention from instruction. On the other hand, they can also serve as powerful tools for accessing information, enhancing engagement, and fostering critical thinking skills. In this article, we will discuss the multifaceted aspects of this debate, examining the possible negative effects, broader context, and potential solutions for integrating cellphones into the classroom effectively.

Disruption, Distraction, & Shifting Attention:

One of the most frequently cited concerns regarding cellphones in classrooms is their negative impact on student performance. The constant pinging of notifications, the allure of social media, and the temptation to multitask can erode students’ focus, recall, and comprehension. It is not uncommon to hear anecdotes of students surreptitiously texting under their desks or scrolling through their Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok feeds, or having earphones in their ears during class time. By doing so, students often find themselves shifting their attention between the teacher and their screens, which can lead to a fragmented learning experience. Anecdotally, we have also heard from many teachers and principals that often parents and caregivers are partly to blame when it comes to distraction given their need to text or call their child during school hours. This fragmented attention can hinder a student’s ability to absorb and retain information effectively. There is research to support that distractions can impede the learning process and disrupt the flow of instruction. (1)(2)(3)(4)(5)

However, it should be noted that the outcomes of “some” of this research is rather unimpressive. In one study, students who “used their phones at all” during class showed only a slight difference of 0.36 grade points compared to those who refrained from phone usage (1). Similarly, another study revealed a mere 0.07 improvement in standardized test scores after the implementation of phone bans.(4)

Another argument that is pushed – according to a 2017 study titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” there’s an argument that smartphones can impact our attention and focus, even when not in use (6). Advocates of this research often emphasize that merely having a cellphone nearby, without active usage, can disrupt learning and thus, underscores the importance of keeping phones out of schools.

Fascinating, particularly considering that the Ward et al 2017 research seemingly backs the “Brain Drain” hypothesis. Yet, what about this 2023 research paper ,”Does the Mere Presence of a Smartphone Impact Cognitive Performance? A Meta-Analysis of the “Brain Drain Effect” (7) that delved deeper into the Ward et al 2017 study and discovered:

“While the brain drain hypothesis is intuitively appealing, as the evidence synthesized in this Meta-analysis suggests, there is mixed empirical support for the idea that the mere presence of a smartphone can negatively impact cognitive performance. The pooled effect for four of the five cognitive domains is null and, while the effect is consistent with the claim for WM its magnitude is far smaller than early seminal work. Overall, the current meta-analysis dampens support for the general claim that the mere presence of a smartphone can negatively impact cognitive performance and provides only limited support for the brain drain hypothesis…”

It should also be noted that there is research that has found “no impact of mobile phone bans on student performance and can reject even small-sized gains.”(8)  Another review of 132 academic studies found, “difficult to determine directions and mechanisms of the causal relations between mobile phone multitasking and academic performance.” (9) This 2018 Norweigion study found no significant effect of implementation of a mobile phone ban on academic results or well-being. (10) There is also this 2023 study at a Swedish school that implemented a blanket ban of all cellphones and found that this policy has had negative pedagogical consequences and therefore replaced the ban with a more balanced approach to the use in classrooms (11)

In a Aug 2022 study titled, “Effects of restricting social media usage on wellbeing and performance: A randomized control trial among students (12) found:

“Contrary to findings from previous correlational studies, we do not find any significant impact of social media usage as it was defined in our study on well-being and academic success.” 

In a further 2022 Doctoral Thesis, “Mobile phone bans in school do not work” (13), Dr Anita Grigic Magnusson looked at the banning of cellphones in four Swedish Schools and found that bans did not make that much of a difference at those schools – mobile phones were being used anyway. Dr Magnusson in here research thesis found:

“The big difference is that at schools where they have a ban, a large part of the use is underhand and also more or less exclusively for matters that are not school related. Even if the teacher collects the mobile phones before each class, both teachers and pupils tell her that the pupils find strategies to elude the school’s and the teachers’ rules. They hand in empty phone cases, they claim to have forgotten the phones at home, or that ‘it’s in the locker.”

Based upon Dr Magnusson’s thesis, although mobile phones in schools is a seemingly straightforward solution to the distractions and potential misuse associated with their use, the reality is that students often found ways to circumvent such bans, leading to a clandestine use that is difficult for educators to monitor and manage effectively. Dr Magnusson’s thesis provides evidence that rather than fostering a healthy relationship with technology in schools, outright bans can inadvertently encourage deceptive behaviour and hinder the development of responsible digital literacy that can in fact place a student at greater risk both inside and outside of school.

But, what about this 2024 published research paper from Norway ” Smartphone Bans, Student Outcomes and Metal Health”(30) that found

“…. banning smartphones leads to a reduction in girls’ need for care related to mental health issues. Additionally, girls’ educational performance improves as their GPA increases by 0.08 and their teacher-awarded grades increase by 0.09 standard deviations. Post-ban girls’ externally graded exams in mathematics improved by 0.22 standard deviations, suggesting that the human capital accumulation of girls is improved post-ban. Girls are also 4–7 percentage points more likely to attend an academic high school track post-ban, suggesting that banning smartphones leads to an improvement in girls’ mid-term educational outcomes. Further, I provide evidence that bullying decreases by 0.42 and 0.39 of a standard deviation for girls and boys, respectively, when they are exposed full-time in middle school.

Of interest, the author of this study found, “Analysis of the full sample indicates no effect of banning smartphones on student’s likelihood of being treated, or on the intensity of treatment, related to psychological symptoms and diseases…”. They also found “For high school track, mental health, and bullying the results are less pronounced by type of ban”. Probably the most interesting thing to note about this study – the claim about “banning” cellphones is misleading given that over half of the schools in this study did not ban cellphones, they allowed students to still possess them as long as they were turned to silent mode during class – hmmmmmm?

The findings in this research paper indicate that there’s no “meaningful” statistical significance observed. Despite effect sizes in this paper – they remain below the threshold for dismissing results as inconsequential statistical noise. This report provided very little, if any, basis for advocating a “ban” as an educational policy, given the reliance on minute effect sizes and frequently non-significant outcomes. (31)  Overall, it’s our argument that the evidence in this study paper provided offers very weak support for any potential benefits of a school banning policy.

Here’s another Master’s Thesis, again from Norway, based upon 493 Norwegian schools called, “Effects of Mobile Phone Bans in Schools on Academic Performance, Well-Being, and Bullying” that found “Our findings suggest no overall effect of the implementation of a mobile phone ban on academic performance” and “The effect of a ban on well-being is non-significant.” (32) same country, same student base, different results from the above mentioned 2024 study.

But What About The UNESCO’s Report?

Recently, we listened to an interview where a parent was quoted saying that a recent UNESCO 2023 report supports removing cellphones from classrooms (14). While news articles about the UNESCO report tend to focus on phones as the primary source of distraction, it’s essential to recognize the broader context of the report’s findings. The UNESCO report acknowledges that smartphones are just one component of a wider suite of information and communications technology used in schools, including personal laptops and tablets. These devices, too, can lead to distraction and lower student engagement. 

However, contrary to the parent’s statement that the UNESCO report supports a complete ban on cellphones and technology in the classroom, it actually cautions against such a drastic measure: 

Students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand to live with and without technology. Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage. It is important to look at these issues with an eye on the future and be ready to adjust and adapt as the world changes.”

The UNESCO report actually underscores the importance of equipping students with the skills to navigate the risks and opportunities that technology presents. It recognizes that shielding them from these challenges could potentially put them at a disadvantage in a digitally driven world. Therefore, the report advocates for an educational approach that empowers students with critical thinking strategies and self-awareness to engage responsibly with technology. Something that we definitely agree with!

An Educational Approach That Is Teacher Guided:

Rather than imposing a blanket school ban, it’s our informed opinion that we should focus on an educational approach. Young people need guidance to develop the necessary skills to use technology effectively. They should learn how to concentrate, identify misinformation, manage algorithmic bias, avoid social isolation, and mediate the appropriate use of technology. In an age when bullying extends beyond the school gates into the onlife world, students need to be equipped with the tools to navigate this digital landscape safely.

Interesting Note: A US-based study found “schools that did not allow cell phone use indicated a higher percentage of principal-reported daily/weekly cyberbullying.”(15)

To truly prepare students for the digital world, we must build trust and empower them with positive habits on the use of their technology. Viewing cellphones as inherently “wrong” or “harmful” creates a dynamic of resistance and rebellion. Singapore, for example, takes an approach that teaches students to use mobile devices responsibly both inside and outside of school (16). This approach fosters responsible technology usage and prepares students for a technology-immersed future where such skills will be a requirement.

Staying with Singapore, opponents of our viewpoint often assert that PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which gauges the proficiency of 15-year-olds in utilizing their reading, mathematics, and science skills to tackle real-world challenges, should serve as a benchmark – something we don’t necessarily disagree with. They advocate for PISA to be the foundational source for determining the content of how classroom curricula should be taught. 

Some opponents to our viewpoint argue that nations consistently excelling in PISA rankings, particularly East Asian countries like Singapore, prohibit the use of cellphones in classrooms. 

According to PISA, Singapore tops the rankings in maths, reading, and science and has done so for years. Singapore’s status as the global education leader and its dominance in PISA rankings is undeniable. However,and as mentioned previously, it is noteworthy that Singapore’s Ministry of Education, and most of their schools, actually allow students to use their phones in class for educational purposes such as note-taking and research, provided they have teacher approval. This aligns with the “moderated use” policy proposed in this article.

As Dr Matthew Courtney (Ed.D) stated (17)

If we don’t let kids use cell phones in the classroom, how will they ever learn to use them responsibly in a workplace? Every adult I know uses their phone all day every day. Let’s prepare kids for the real world.

As Professor Andy Miah stated (18)

It is not inconceivable to me that many more schools will progressively restrict access to mobile devices, or at least further implement rules to limit such use during school time, but this direction of travel misses a far bigger picture and opportunity we have to promote positive empowering conversations about this incredibly advanced devices which have changed the world.

Setting up a ban creates an artificial reality for young people upon entering adulthood. They will absolutely rely on mobile devices in the way that doctors rely on them to search for medical information or politicians rely on them to engage with the public.

It is hard work to establish positive habits around mobile device use, especially within young peoples lives, where we not only have to grapple with the challenge of content, which draws participation and consumption into it like a magnet, but this is the educational challenge of our time.

Fostering a Productive Learning Environment

Classrooms are already filled with distractions such as – external environmental noises, internal thoughts (daydreaming), and friends poking each other from behind. 

Teachers must reflect on their pedagogy and adapt to the ubiquitous world of technology. Instead of seeing cellphones as the adversary, they can instead harness their potential for active participation, research, and documentation (19)(20)(21)(22). What about this school Investigating the educational advantages stemming from student-generated virtual and augmented reality encounters would have been unfeasible if not for the accessibility of mobile phones, offering a more cost-effective option compared to expensive VR equipment. (23) The goal is to nurture lifelong learners who are productive and informed users of technology. However, educators must receive the proper training on how to make this happen through professional development education – something we have found is sadly lacking in many school district jurisdictions.

The debate about cellphones in classrooms should also prompt educators to consider their own phone habits and etiquette. If we advocate for students to put away their devices for the sake of learning, educators must be willing to do the same. Hypocrisy arises when adults are not equally committed to being phone-free during school hours.

Guiding vs Banning Policy

Reducing the debate to a binary choice (ban or allow) oversimplifies the issue. There are alternative approaches that can strike a balance between technology use and learning. Empowering teachers to manage technology usage based on its contribution to learning, fostering a culture of respect for teachers’ preferences, and promoting self-control and emotional regulation in students are all valuable strategies. Finding a middle ground for both learning and recreational device use during the school day can teach moderation, balance, and priorities—skills that students will carry with them into adulthood.

This is something that Belmont High School here in Victoria British Columbia Canada has done (24) – rather than banning cellphones, they have created something we like to call a “moderated use” guideline. In fact, it’s clear that the school is allowing their teachers to provide permission to students to use their phone in two circumstances:

#1 – As a learning tool when instructed to do so by the teacher, and

#2 – As a “technology break” at the time and discretion of the teacher

The school has also provided an exception for students who require a mobile device for medical management & IEP provisions.

Other than the above-noted approved uses, student are given the choice to keep their phone in their backpack, pocket, or locker turned off or on vibrate mode. If not, there are defined consequences.

The goal of this cellphone guideline is to reduce the distraction and disruption that the unregulated use of cellphones and other digital devices can cause in the classroom, while a the same time allowing mobile tech to be used as a positive educational tool. In fact, the principal provided us these goals for their guideline development:

  • Provide uniform language for teachers to use in their classrooms, as students do better when guidelines are communicated in a consistent manner

  • Provide a framework that is realistic in terms of what we can enforce, provides agency to students, and recognizes that technology continues to evolve

  • Recognize that cell phones are a tool that can be used in positive as well as negative ways

  • Recognize that students of this age need to learn how to use their technology in ways that reflect and prepare them for adult settings

  • Work in partnership with students/parents/guardians to address etiquette, particularly in asking them to contact one another outside of class time, or through the front office

We think these guidelines are well thought out, balanced, and reasonable. This guideline still provides agency to the student on their control and use of their personal technology, but also provides clear guidelines as to the permissible use while inside and outside of class, as well as defined consequences to the unauthorized use of technology while at school.

Recently, we reached out to the Belmont Principal to ask them about how their guidelines have been working thus far, and their response to us, “So far, the guidelines have proved useful and are serving these purposes.”

The issue of cellphones in classrooms is far from black and white. It’s crucial to recognize that mobile devices are neither a plague nor a panacea for student learning. While they can be distracting and potentially harmful, they also offer opportunities for engagement and learning. The key lies in finding a nuanced approach that empowers students to use technology responsibly, reduces distraction, and prepares them for a digitally saturated world (25)(26)(27)(28).

As Dr Livingston stated (29),

“Since there is insufficient evidence that a mobile phone ban in schools would benefit children’s education, we recommend that the UK Government, in support of evidence-based policy, should fund a national cluster randomized controlled trial (RCT) of phone bans in schools, to rigorously assess both potential positive and negative outcomes – encompassing academic performance, e-learning opportunities, pupil behaviour and wellbeing, cyberbullying, school attendance and carry-over effects on family life.”

We hope this needed research comes to fruition.

Ultimately, the goal is to nurture well-rounded, informed, and digitally literate learners who can thrive in the era in which they live. Rather than a ban, let’s focus on guidance, education, trust, and empowerment as the means to achieve this goal, ensuring that our students are equipped to navigate the complexities of today’s onlife world with confidence and competence through the use of their technology.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter

Another recommended article written by 7 PhD researchers on why banning cellphones in school will not benefit a students education:

Here is an article about research done in Australia

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