The Great Mobile Phone Debate

6th September 2019

Are smartphones a barrier to learning or do they play an essential role in a twenty-first century educational experience? Lisa Botwright looks into the pros and cons of allowing teenagers access to their phones while in school…

Earlier this year, Minister for School Standards Nick Gibb called for a more stringent approach to smartphone use in schools. Commenting on government guidelines on health education, which recommended that ‘schools actively promote pupils’ self-control and ability to self-regulate’, he told the BBC: “Many schools have already taken the decision to ban mobile phones from the classroom. While this is clearly a matter for the head teacher, my own view is that schools should ban their pupils from bringing smartphones into school or the classroom.”

There is mounting evidence of a direct association between time spent online and mental health issues among teenagers. Research by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, found that the average teenager spends at least two hours a day on their phones and that forty per cent of youngsters said they would feel ‘lost’ without their smartphone for a single day. Six in ten under-14s said their phone is the first thing they check in the morning and last thing at night.

At the same time, there is a worrying increase in anxiety and depression. The UK’s leading charity for children and young people’s mental health, Young Minds, reports that one in eight children now has a diagnosable mental health disorder – which equates to roughly three children in every classroom.

“There’s nothing intrinsically damaging about spending time online,” Mr Gibb asserts. “But if the time children spend using social media or playing computer games becomes excessive, it drives out time for them to talk to their parents, exercise, do their homework or play with friends.”

Mobile phones, a teenager’s primary portal to the online world, are designed to be as alluring as possible. We get an instant hit of dopamine (the same feel-good chemical linked to drug and alcohol addiction) every time our screen lights up with a new notification. Dopamine reinforces and motivates behaviour that makes us feel good. Teenagers often speak about the pressure they feel to make themselves available online as much as possible, in case they miss out on friends’ messages and posts, which is also driving addictive behaviour.

Even teens motivated to regulate their smartphone use may still unknowingly be affected. Research by US psychologist Kristen Duke demonstrated that even just the visible presence of a phone reduces cognitive capacity. In an experiment involving 800 people; she gave participants a series of tasks to perform. She found that those who kept their phones face down on their desk (with notifications switched off) performed worse in the tests than the control group whose phones remained tucked away in a separate room.

With this in mind, it’s little surprise that most head teachers agree with Nick Gibb and choose to minimise mobile phone use in schools.

At Watford Grammar School for Girls, smartphone use is not tolerated under any circumstances. If devices are brought into school, they must be stowed away in lockers until the end of the day. Head teacher Sylvia Tai explains, “we haven’t changed our policy since mobile phones started to be used and owned by students – some 15 to 20 years ago – and the consequence of having your phone in a place you shouldn’t hasn’t changed either. I’ve not seen any research that has convinced me that I should change this policy. While our academic performance continues to be incredibly strong, both in terms of progress and achievement, and the number of girls attending extra curricular activities remains as strong as it is, and if the behaviour of our students continues to be as exemplary as it is, I’m not convinced that introducing phones would make their progress any better.”

She maintains that an absence of electronic devices promotes better social skills, fosters resilience and encourages children to use their time more productively. “If we were to allow phones, what would be lost is the socialising period that we have in school, and the incentive the students have to go to the clubs, societies and sporting activities that we offer. I’ve been in schools that do allow phones during breaktimes,” she continues, “and I see children mostly socialising, but also others on the fringes that are focused on their phone. It’s an easy way to be entertained, or distracted; that child could be reading a book instead, or doing another activity... a phone means they don’t need to make the effort to socialise.”

But some education professionals disagree with such a hardline approach. Senior policy advisor to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) Sarah Hannafin argues that prohibiting pupils from taking a mobile phone to school can be counterproductive. “Mobile phone bans certainly work for some schools but there isn’t one policy that will work for all schools. Outright banning can cause more problems than it solves, driving phone use ‘underground’ and making problems less visible and obvious for schools to tackle.”

Some teachers, moreover, believe that phones can make a positive contribution to learning, and that an outright veto is inappropriate within the context of a twenty-first century educational experience.

Patsy Kane, executive head teacher of a multi-academy trust in Manchester, argues that current government guidelines “miss the point on just how useful mobile phones can be for learning”. She gives the example of the “fantastic range of apps now for revision” and how “students are really motivated to use them”.

Therefore, rather than ignoring the elephant-shaped mobile phones in the room, is it up to schools to interpret the government’s call to teach self-regulation by demonstrating a healthful and disciplined attitude to phone use? Is the older generation missing an opportunity to facilitate a more mindful and measured approach? Many schools, even those with strict policies against phone use among their younger pupils, certainly do become more relaxed with older students and allow sixth- formers supervised use of their phones to access learning platforms, for example, or to take photos of classroom whiteboards for future reference.

Elliot Gowans, Senior Vice President of learning platform Brightspace, suggests that “flexible, accessible mobile learning supports the development of older students’ independence, ownership of their progress and time management of their studies. Not providing such an experience can become a barrier to successful learning.” He believes that “embracing the mobile in education familiarises students with ways of learning that are increasingly adopted in today’s workplace, preparing them for what they will no doubt come across in future employment”.

But Sylvia Tai remains convinced that the negatives of smartphone use among her students outweigh any perceived advantages. “The purpose of my school is to teach the curriculum, to teach pupils resilience, how to manage their own discipline and other, general skills. It doesn’t have to be about the phone.”

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