October 4, 2023
The impact of mobile phones on student cognitive capacity
There is no doubt that children and adults alike are becoming more dependent upon and, indeed, addicted to their mobile devices. Many of us probably cannot remember the last time we spent a whole day without once looking at a phone screen. A study by the UK media regulator, Ofcom, highlighted this dependence with 22% of adults and 47% of teenagers admitting to using their phone whilst on the toilet and 81% of mobile phone users also admitting to never turning them off (even when in bed). We often talk about the social consequences of mobile phone usage, but what impact are mobile phones having on our children’s development and overall academic performance?
Mobile phones and addiction
A study[i] conducted in the US in 2017 showed that mobile phone addiction can have an impact on the young brain. The scientific team used MRI images of children’s brains to show the impact of technological addiction. Playing a game on a tablet or mobile causes a release of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, and their research showed that youngsters experience a “digital high” and then, after playing, brain activity almost shuts down with executive functioning affected. Dopamine is also released by simply swiping through apps, scrolling through social media or receiving “likes”. Unbelievably, the researchers claim there are similarities in patterns with MRI images of the brains of drug addicts. This shift of brain behaviour can obviously have an impact on mood and concentration.
Studies have shown that excessive use of mobile phones can lead to anxiety and feelings of loneliness. A reliance on mobile phones can also cause irritation, frustration and impatience. Using a bright mobile phone before bed delays the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin, thus affecting our sleep. We also haven’t yet mentioned the social issues around appearance, self-esteem and online bullying.
Mobile phones and studying
We often have a mobile phone at arm’s length when working and know that this can be a distraction. Imagine how distracting it can be for your child to have their entire social world, as well as gaming, videos and music just a reach away when they are doing homework or revising. It takes just one notification for concentration to be lost. One study[ii] even showed that the mere presence of a mobile phone when not even being used causes distraction.
Dr Adrian Ward, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor of marketing at the University of Texas, co-authored a different study[iii] that showed the impact of a mobile phone on studying when it was out on the desk, away in a bag or removed to a different room. Again it showed that even the presence of smartphones in a study space can lower your learning, logical reasoning, abstract thinking, problem-solving, and creative abilities.
Ward and his co-authors recruited 520 students and tested their ability to focus on a single task and solve unfamiliar problems. Participants in the study were divided into three groups: one group kept their smartphones on the desk; one kept them in a pocket or backpack; and one put them in a separate room.
Nearly all of the students in the experiment reported not being distracted by their phones, but the results told a very different story. Students who kept their phones on the desk performed the worst on the tests followed by those who kept their phones in a pocket or backpack. The highest performers were the students who left their phones in a separate room. Even with the phone being on silent or being face down, the presence of the phone had an impact on student performance.
It has been proven that mobile phones in schools have an adverse effect on student performance (At ELIS Murcia students outside of Sixth Form are only allowed mobile phones for the journey to and from school. They are not allowed out during the school day. In fact, we strongly encourage students not to bring their mobile phones to school at all). An extensive piece of research[iv] conducted by the London School of Economics over several years revealed that banning mobile phones in schools increased students’ GCSE scores, especially for lower-achieving students.
The research is clear: mobile phones do have an impact on students’ concentration and grades, as well as on mood, concentration and overall wellbeing (please also see the summary of further research conducted globally below). When revising or studying, your child’s mobile phone or tablet should be in a separate room. Clear guidelines also need to be in place as to when your child has mobile free time, and let us not forget that we are their role models. We all have to be reflective about our own use of technology in front of children. Let’s not insist on one rule for them and ignore the research ourselves. We have seen that mobile phones can affect grades and academic performance, however, it must be acknowledged that when used in moderation they can be an incredible tool for research, revision using certain specialist applications, and for being in contact with peers and family. We need to find a healthy balance and that is no easy task!
Tips for parents and students:
- Ensure your child has phone-free time each day. Ensure there is a clear period of time each day where your son or daughter will not use their phone. Agree this time with your son or daughter. Set an example and ensure you do the same.
- Never have a phone nearby when doing homework or revision. Having a phone nearby can cause temptation and be a distraction. Ensure there is an agreed place to keep the phone when your child is working and during examination periods agree times when your son /daughter is allowed on their phone. They need down time too. Relentless studying is not productive.
- Don’t let your son or daughter use a phone before bed. Make sure there is some downtime to help switch off. Being on a mobile phone an hour or so before bed can upset sleep patterns, and lead to less restful sleep.
- Never have a phone in the bedroom when you sleep. This goes for adults too! Ensure your son or daughter has an alarm clock and doesn’t rely on their phone in their bedroom.
- Check your phone less regularly. Encourage your son or daughter to turn off notifications which are a distraction. Check the notifications in settings. A constant barrage of notifications only encourages greater phone usage.
[i] https://www.wxyz.com/news/national/stunning-results-after-researchers-look-at-effects-of-cell-phones-on-kids-national?_amp=true A further similar study: Are Smartphones as Addictive as Drugs? • Trojan Family Magazine (usc.edu)
[ii] Thornton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., & Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, 45(6), 479–488
Further resources and research:
- Inner Drive’s mobile phone management for students: Mobile Phone Management for Students | InnerDrive Guides
- Here is an interesting summary, also from Inner Driver, of mobile phone research conducted on students around the World: The negative impact of mobile phones: research around the world (innerdrive.co.uk)