Powerful EdTech or addictively harmful? Musings on the status of mobile phones at school

Deputy Principal Academic Thom Marchbank takes a deep dive into the use of phones in the School environment

Mobile phones are a ubiquitous feature of 21st century life, accelerating in usage and market saturation since the 1980s – they have absorbed so many functions from other technologies and devices that they are an indispensable part of modernity. From telephony to image recording, from calendar keeping to entertainment and health tracking – phones are with us.

Like many technologies, many people worry about the impact of mobile phones on our lives – wondering what they do to our attention, our memory, our sense of spatial orientation, our mental health, or our ability to socialise with each other.

Parents struggle with these things, and with the right time to allow their children to have a phone – whether it is in the upper primary years, or in high school. And yet these are devices that also contain our lives in our pockets; they enable us to connect with each other by shrinking space and time, to access information and advice, to be creative, to extend our memory and act as a personal assistant, to locate ourselves and be located, and plug into goods and services.

When I think of the issue of phones at school, I think of what they make possible as much as what they interfere with – just last week, I asked Year 12 English students that I was supervising for a timed practice task to take out their phones at the end of the task, convert pictures of their handwritten essays to PDFs, and upload them to Canvas, our Learning Management System. Once their essays were there, all teachers have access to them, and students can never lose their copy of the task or their feedback. When we release their feedback, they can see it instantly on their phones. I also think of the short films, shot, edited and uploaded, that have originated from students’ phones in my classes, or the podcasts or interviews they have done through voice recording apps, or the eager use of phones as a device to rapidly enter answers in pop Kahoot quizzes.

What does the evidence say about the use of phones in learning contexts, and their impacts?

Part of the challenge in studying phone use is the complexity involved in constructing research designs that can establish causal links between phones and effects, particularly when there are so many other variables at play. Many of the research designs are quasi-experimental, smaller scale, and non-longitudinal. They can be troubled by things such as conceptual ambiguity – it is tricky to disinter the impacts of phones themselves from things that they can facilitate, such as social media, or from other electronic devices or gaming; issues of self-report (people later recalling how they felt or how extensive their usage was, which is subject to social desirability biases); and correlational, cross-sectional data, in which it can be difficult to tell in which direction the causal arrow of influence points (do more distracted teens self-soothe by accessing technology more, or does accessing technology make teens more distracted, for instance … or do teens suffering from poor mental health seek out like-minded communities online and are therefore heavier users of social media, or does using social media more inevitably lead to more poor mental health).

There is also the selectivity of publication bias with which to contend, where ‘positive’ findings are preferred in the literature to findings that conclude no relationship. The nuances involved in the research is particularly concerning when it comes to making bold and definitive public announcements about the impacts of technology.

Jonathan Haidt is one such public commentator on the impacts of technology who has been particularly vocal in recent years. An American social psychologist initially interested in moral disgust and condemnation, Haidt’s primary area of research has been tracking political discord and division: why and how people disagree politically, and how they arrive at moral judgments of political foes. He has been led in this academic work to see a direct causal connection between social media, technology, and political divides. More recently, he has branched out from tracking political disagreements in America to technology usage more generally, and with adolescents – his Substack offers a record of this discourse. Haidt is an interesting voice in this space, but he does come from a particular ideological perspective on technology that can be alarmist and prefers to cast technology as a looming, apocalyptic threat.

As we all are, Haidt can be quite subject to confirmation bias. He selectively attends to evidence that highlights risks and harms. This is apparent in the fascinating but partisan repository of literature that he has been collecting on the subject, which has the appearance of a literature review but is not subject to the same rigorous processes or evaluation as a published review. It is certainly gaining him traction as a commentator on these issues, which is its own feedback loop in audience affirmation. He can also focus exclusively on technology and platforms that he understands and uses regularly – frequently referencing the pitfalls of Twitter in his public essays – and fail to see the rich, variegated, diverse, productive and exciting ways that young people access and use technology.

In contrast with Haidt, the evidence for harms have been found to be much more mixed and ambiguous in other research; one enormous recent study, by Orben and Przybylski (2019), with a sample of more than 350,000 participants, for example, found that the impact of social media in particular on adolescent mental health was detectable but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in adolescent wellbeing. This study was critiqued in the science journal Nature’s ‘Matters Arising’ section by Haidt and his collaborator Jean Twenge, but the original authors also had a robust response to Haidt and Twenge’s critiques.

Researchers such as Haidt and Twenge do rightly emphasise worrying trends in data about adolescence. In a recent paper (Twenge et al., 2020), they report the results of an analysis of a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of 15- and 16-year-olds with a 6-item measure of school loneliness. There is undeniably a bump in adolescents self-reporting loneliness at school across the world since 2000, with a marked increase after 2012. Twenge and Haidt are convinced that this uptick is due to social media – and they often try to conflate social media with phones more generally. But there have been enormous and rapid changes across a number of domains for young people in the first two decades of the 21st century: increasing globalisation and neoliberal transformations of economies, leading to volatile, unstable and uncertain work, increasing interconnection via digital technologies of all kinds, increasing awareness of climate change, the advent of AI, and a widening conversation about mental illness itself among young people that leads to more open acknowledgments of mental struggles. It seems premature to conclude that access to phones alone is the primary source of variability in the rise in young people’s loneliness. The recent US Surgeon General’s advisory on social media is a clarion call for more research, and more high quality research, in the area.

As a result of his own stance and research, Haidt has made assertive calls for phones to be banned in schools. The Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg has powerfully shaped the discourse in Australia on this issue in a similar way, and for similar reasons.

But the research used to justify restrictions, as appealing as it is on the face of it, is often not as high quality or certain as we would want. One example is Beland and Murphy (2015). This is an oft-cited paper on the academic impacts of phone use in schools, and it is one to which both Haidt and Carr-Gregg eagerly refer. Beland and Murphy were interested in seeing what association there might be between a restriction in phone use or availability in schools and academic achievement. When the paper was published, media globally enthusiastically reported Beland and Murphy’s key finding: that a phone ban resulted in a 6.4% of a standard deviation increase in academic achievement in the average student in a school in which a ban was introduced. Sounds great! Who wouldn’t want academic achievement to be increased, especially through such a simple change?

But what was involved in the study? The researchers phoned or emailed school principals from over 200 schools and asked then whether they had a policy restricting phone use, what punishments existed for transgressing that policy, and whether they could rate how well the policy was implemented at their school. Ninety-one responded. They then correlated the responses to this survey with aggregate General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) data, and tried to calculate the association between the self-reported phone policy and relative academic achievement, as assessed by GCSE scores. But there was no comparison group in the study, so no way to contextualise any detected improvement; the study relied on self-report, with issues of selective reporting or social desirability; there was no classroom level data, so no way to tell how a school’s policy worked ‘on the ground’; and the key finding actually made a trivial difference – 6.4% of a standard deviation might mean in practical terms a mark bump of 3.84 marks out of 522 in a student’s overall final score. This is only one paper that is part of this discourse, but it is a salient one because of the amount of coverage it has received, and its prominence in the debate.

There is a continuing and robust conversation about technology, phones, academic achievement and wellbeing, and teachers and parents rightly share concerns about young people’s use of technology. We all want young people to be well, safe, and learn. Phones can be a convenient moralised lightning rod for justified community concern, but banning them is a simplistic and ineffective solution that fails to integrate a sense of responsibility into the use of technology for young people, and also comes with huge resourcing and operational impacts for schools.

Often lost in the heat of the discussion are that phones also have a raft of positive and beneficial features for students, such as calendars that help students organise homework, apps that they can use for mindfulness, wellbeing and health tracking, access to email that they can use to contact their teachers, and platforms and tools that they can use to participate in learning activities, such as the student version of Canvas, or Kahoot. Phones can be used to create multimedia content, upload written work to Canvas, and undertake research. The key to effective phone use is moderation and oversight, which we are confident that we have in our mobile phone policy and professional development at IGS; at our school, we opt for a proactive policy that does not allow students to use their devices in class unless they have been specifically requested to do so. Phones can certainly be distracting, and attention is the cornerstone of learning – neurons that can’t fire together don’t wire together. Teachers are confident in directing students to devices as and when they are required. Moderation and oversight can also be employed in the way that phones are set up and used for young people – there is extensive control that families can exercise over apps, screen time, and the ability to purchase.

At school, we try to help students to develop a healthy responsibility for the way that they use their devices, educating them about the way that technology affects them, and empowering them to make good choices in how and when they use their technology.

As more research comes to light – especially high-quality longitudinal or experimental data that shows a substantiated causal connection between use and impacts – we will continue to review our approach to phones at school and their use inside and outside the classroom, but in the meantime, it is best to take a balanced, patient, and sceptical stance on the issue and the evidence and work to instil good values into our children and young people about technology. We should pay close attention to evidence of risk and harms, but also be equally alert to opportunities for innovation, enrichment, productivity, creativity and play.