Written for SecEd Magazine. First published in print on 12 September 2022 and online on 22 September 2022.
Some time ago, I was called into a head of year 12’s office and told off. I had been bemoaning the use of mobile phones in lessons to sixth-formers, probably in response to a device being used in that particular class, and had offended the students.
Towards the end of my mild rant, I stated that: “What really gets me is when a pupil claims that it’s their mum so it’s okay that they answer the call while I’m teaching.”
I then added, somewhat tongue in cheek: “A great mum that is constantly interrupting their kids’ education,” before suggesting, “I feel like grabbing the phone and telling their mum that if they really loved their child, they’d put the phone down and let them learn something!”
I was met with stunned silence. Then someone murmured that they “couldn’t believe he just said that” before a chorus of indignant protests started fermenting dissent, centred on the fact that at some point or other most of the students’ parents had called them while in lessons.
The head of year 12 wasn’t going to back me up either, “… as from time-to-time I have to do the same with my own sons”.
Why ban mobile phones in school?
Perhaps my colleague was right. Mobile phones have revolutionised our lives in many positive ways, such as keeping in contact with distant family and friends, facilitating e-commerce and allowing us access to vast quantities of information.
Their use in school has also been advocated, the impact of mobile phone bans disputed, and the child’s “right” to digital technology championed (Graham, 2020; Campbell & Third, 2020; Livingstone & Third, 2017).
Nevertheless, there is a danger that children are becoming overly dependent on their devices, which are hindering learning at school. This is why headteacher and chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, told the Association of School and College Leaders’ annual conference in March: “If we genuinely want things to be fairer, and we want our disadvantaged children to be socially mobile, the best thing I can do for them is getting them not to have a smartphone” (see Mumsnet, 2022).
Although I do not always agree with Ms Birbalsingh, I would side with her on this and not my old colleague, the nomophobic and textaphrenic head of year 12.
There is increasing evidence, despite the objections cited above, that mobile phone bans in schools have a positive overall impact on academic attainment and pupil wellbeing (Beland, 2021; Lemov, 2022).
As my own school moves from a partial to total mobile phone ban, here are 10 additional reasons why I think we are right to do so.
Distractions and interruptions: Aside from all the fun on offer via various apps, pupils are regularly distracted in lessons by social media messages, texts and occasionally calls from friends and, sadly, family. Not only does this negatively affect the flow and focus of learning, but the knock-on effects of comment, gossip or even distress – if the news is in any way upsetting – can create classroom commotion. Moreover, studies have shown that overuse of mobile phones can lead to a more general problem of inattention, especially among young people, which inevitably impacts on learning (Zhang et al, 2014).
Less face-to-face interaction: Despite having so much opportunity to interact and enjoy each others’ company, some pupils choose to simply spend 50 minutes staring at a screen. This can have a detrimental effect on pupils’ ability to socialise and make friends in and out of school as well as in later life (Twenge, 2019).
Cyber-bullying: Online bullying, or simply hurtful behaviour, impacts on pupils’ wellbeing at school and is made all the easier by access to mobile technologies (Mendez et al, 2020). Of course, any teacher reading this, particularly pastoral leads, would be able to back this up with a whole host of anonymised anecdotal evidence. Importantly, further research suggests that adolescents who overuse mobile phones are more exposed to cyber-bullying (Sheinov, 2021). Additional concerns related to cyber-bullying include sexting, infringement of privacy and worries about reputation and image.
Mental health: Researchers have known for some time that excessive use of mobile phones can increase the risk of anxiety and depression, particularly – but not exclusively – in those prone to these conditions (Rosen et al, 2013). Furthermore, studies show that increased mobile phone use can trigger these mental health issues, particularly among young people (Wacks & Weinstein, 2021).
Smartphone addiction: Mobile phones can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain that, in turn, affects our emotions and alters our mood. It will come as no surprise that many mobile phone apps are designed to keep users coming back repeatedly for positive rewards or social reinforcement, which some psychologists see as contributing towards a “behavioural addiction” (Alavi et al, 2012). Perhaps more worryingly, some studies are now demonstrating a clear correlation between adolescence and so-called smartphone addiction and that one in three young people surveyed in the UK admit to problem use (Shoukat, 2019; Sohn et al, 2021 ).
Sleep deprivation: Studies have found that night time mobile phone use is prevalent among young people and that this impacts on both their physical and mental health if not kept in check (Schoeni et al, 2015). Although pupils don’t sleep at school, it could be argued that overuse of mobile phones during the day leads to a dependency that affects pupils at night.
Lower grades: All of the above can impact over time on pupils’ attainment. Large scale studies have started to link overuse of mobile phones to lower grades – in that time spent on these devices correlates with lower exam results among various demographics of children in numerous countries. This includes pupils sitting their GCSEs in England and Wales (InnerDrive, 2022).
Cheating and exam irregularities: The Guardian reported that there has been a 42% rise in cheating cases involving gadgets such as mobile phones in the UK over a five-year period (Marsh, 2017). Smartphones and watches make cheating all the more tempting. Of course, pupils and parents should be aware that pupils may well be disqualified from exams even if they simply forget that their device is on them.
Bans work: An overview of mobile phone bans by the London School of Economics found there was an improvement in pupil performance of 6.41% in a number of UK schools that have introduced a mobile phone ban. Moreover, for low prior-attainers, this positive impact rose to 14%, which led the report’s authors to state: “Banning mobile phones could be a low-cost way for schools to reduce educational inequality.” (Beland & Murphy, 2015). Bans seem to have the same effect elsewhere, including in Spain (Beneito & Vicente-Chirivella, 2020).
You can still contact your child: Lastly, and to my old colleague, I would point out that if anything serious happens in school, we would undoubtedly call home straight away. Furthermore, if there is an emergency outside of school, parents can call in and we can relay the message or get the pupil to a phone. Otherwise, if my lessons are interrupted by random calls, I will still “feel like grabbing the phone and telling their mum that if they really loved their child, they’d put the phone down and let them learn something”!
SecEd Autumn Edition 2022
This article first appeared in SecEd’s Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every secondary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.sec-ed.co.uk/digital-editions/
Further information & resources
- Alavi et al: Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views, International Journal of Preventative Medecine, 2012: https://bit.ly/2znjVUz
- Beland: Banning mobile phones in schools can improve students’ academic performance. This is how we know, The Conversation, March 2021: https://bit.ly/3ByGjbR
- Beland & Murphy: Ill communication: Technology, distraction & student performance, Centre for Economic Performance, 2015: https://bit.ly/3zgv2dG
- Beneito & Vicente-Chirivella: Banning mobile phones in schools: evidence from regional-level policies in Spain, Discussion Papers in Economic Behaviour, December 2020: https://bit.ly/3PRGxzn
- Campbell & Third: No, education minister, we don’t have enough evidence to support banning mobile phones in schools, The Conversation, December 2020: https://bit.ly/3PVyRfq
- Graham: Smartphone use in the classroom, National Education Association, June 2020: https://bit.ly/3boWMoy
- InnerDrive: The negative impact of mobile phones: Research around the world, accessed August 2022: https://bit.ly/3vxplac
- Livingstone & Third: Children and young people’s rights in the digital age: An emerging agenda, New Media And Society (19, 5), 2017: https://bit.ly/3cSpOx3
- Lemov: Take away their cell phones, Education Next, Summer 2022: https://bit.ly/3p5Luss
- Marsh: More university students are using tech to cheat in exams, The Guardian, April 2017: https://bit.ly/3Q3PENe
- Mendez et al: Profiles of mobile phone use, cyberbullying, and emotional intelligence in adolescents, Sustainability (12, 22), 2020: https://bit.ly/3zoK5SA
- Mumsnet: Headteacher says ‘best thing we can do for kids is NOT to give them a smartphone’, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3QdjcaW
- Rosen et al: The media and technology usage and attitudes scale, Computers in Human Behavior (29,6), 2013: https://bit.ly/3QbLcfb
- Schoeni, Roser, & Röösli: Symptoms and cognitive functions in adolescents in relation to mobile phone use during night, PLOS ONE, 2015: https://bit.ly/35NXVhP
- Sheinov: Smartphone addiction and personality, RUDN Journal of Psychology and Pedagogics (18,1), 2021: https://bit.ly/3PRI5JH
- Shoukat: Cell phone addiction and psychological and physiological health in adolescents, EXCLI Journal (18), 2019: https://bit.ly/2TjbpvW
- Sohn et al: The association between smartphone addiction and sleep, Frontiers in Psychiatry, March 2021: https://bit.ly/3Bv8KHU
- Twenge: Teens have less face time with their friends – and are lonelier than ever, The Conversation, March 2019: https://bit.ly/2HM1s6F
- Wacks & Weinstein: Excessive smartphone use is associated with health problems in adolescents and young adults, Frontiers in Psychiatry, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3oLK8D7
- Yan: Child and adolescent use of mobile phones: An unparalleled complex developmental phenomenon, Child Development (89,1), 2018: https://bit.ly/3zjNiCM
- Zheng et al: Association between mobile phone use and inattention in 7102 Chinese adolescents, BMC Public Health (14), 2014: https://bit.ly/3BueLEz
Picture credit: Leo Reynolds via Flickr (used under a Creative Commons Licence)