Mobile Phones in the Classroom

What Does the Research Actually Say?

(Updated 9th January 2020)

Abstract

In this article I examine the arguments for and against pupils having mobile phones in schools and particularly in the classroom. I do this by extensively engaging critically with recent research on mobile technology and smartphones.

If nothing else, this article might provide access to considerable research on the topic so that individuals can make up their own mind.

One of the difficulties of examining the research in this field is disentangling research on the use of mobile devices (ipads etc.) and research on the presence of pupils’ own mobile phones, each of which bring rather different issues. This is only one of the difficulties of looking for research-informed conclusions on this topic however. Much of the research is inconclusive, in part because mobile phone technology is still in its infancy. But also because methodologically, much of the research has followed a clinical experimental model rather than more naturalistic qualitative studies.

One further confounding factor in this discussion is the creation of a modern-day moral panic over youth and technology. In history we have seen similar arguments over the invention of the book, radio, television, and the calculator, that we now see over expressed over mobile phones.

I also take the opportunity to look at how need to critique research by looking for strengths and weaknesses, as well as methodological and paradigmatic limitations.

This is not an article that provides a structure for incorporating mobile phones into schools. That is a much different piece of work and might come later.

The structure of this piece is as follows:

  • A. Mobile Phones – Friend or foe? In this introduction I suggest that contemporary opposition to the mobile phone is no different from historical reactions to technological innovation.
  • B. What does the research say? In this section I look at the findings offered in one frequently cited article, by Berland and Murphy, claiming mobile phones reduce pupils achievement, and suggest all is not what might be presumed.
  • C. Sweden – Structured Technology. Three Swedish researchers undertook an extension of the Beland and Murphy study in a country where technology has been integrated into education for some time. Unsurprisingly, their results paint a very different picture.
  • D. Canada – Pragmatism. Consistent with the Swedish research Thierry Karsenti in Canada has looked at the impact of removing bans and found positive results.
  • E. UK – What the Kids Think. A small scale study in the UK actually asked young people of their views of mobiles and learning, something that surprisingly not many researchers do. This study throws up much more positive viewpoints.
  • F. USA – Bring your own or use ours. An american study explored the issues in incorporating mobile technology (in contrast to mobile phones) in classrooms, and identified four key elements which needed to be resolved for mobile technology to be a success in the classroom. Although this study does not discuss pupils’ own devices, it does identify important practical considerations.
  • G. Are Phones Actually a Distraction? It is very easy these days to produce a blog which clams to draw on research to reach a conclusion with which one may be ideologically comfortable. However, it is also possible to misinterpret and so misuse research in order to do that. I give one example of that here.
  • H. Where Mobiles Work. I look in this section at the work of those, such as Liz Kolb, who have spent time developing an approach to constructive use of mobile phones with the curriculum.
  • I. Smartphones and Cognition – Reviewing the Research. I examine a large review of research into smartphones and cognition, but pointing our several limitations in the research.
  • J. Does Digital Technology ACTUALLY Impact Upon Well-being? A great deal of research has been carried out in Oxford over whether “screen-time” does indeed have deleterious effects on children. The conclusion is … probably not.
  • K. Where Are We Now? In this final section, I look at how we might respond to what we do know about technology.
  • L. Sources. I provide links to all research I draw on in this article. Since much academic research is behind publishers’ paywalls, much of this will be inaccessible to many. I have personally accessed each article cited however and can provide more information.

A. Mobile Phones – Friend or foe?

The almost ubiquitous presence of mobile phones in society testifies to the power held within the device. They considerably improve communication, augment human cognition, and make us more effective. Yet at the same time there is a growing concern over the effect such devices might be having on us; on our patterns of behaviour by making us lazy, and even on our cognitive function by rewiring our brains.

Discussions about mobile technology, especially mobile phones in schools, very quickly become febrile. The mere suggestion that a mobile phone might have a place in enhancing learning, can often result in large-scale Twitter posts (“pile-ons“) from practitioners testifying to the necessity for complete bans on mobile devices in schools. This is somewhat similar – though more febrile – to the discussions, decades ago, over the use of calculators in schools, to video games, and virtually everything young people become interested in:

However, in a world witnessing ecological destruction, political polarisation and growing social divides, should fears about technology really occupy the limited space in the forefront of our minds? Concerns about smartphones might fade away in the coming decade, just as anxieties about video arcades, Dungeons & Dragons and Elvis’s hips did in previous generations

Przybylski and Orben, 2019

Yet when establishment figures, such as the the President of the Girls’ School Association, and The Times, extoll the virtues of mobile phones in schools, we surely need to sit up and listen.

On January 8th 2020, various elements of the press (The Times, BBC, Irish News, Sky, Heart) were reporting Jane Prescott (@PrescottJane), Head of Portsmouth High School and new President of the Girls’ School Association as saying schools can’t be “Luddite” about mobile phones and that they are “here to stay“. The Times even reported this in their Leader column:

The Times, Wednesday January 8th 2020, p. 25

Jane is quoted as saying:

We demonise mobile phones and there is certainly an aspect of mobile phones that is destructive – excessive social media use, being able to promote the celebrity culture, gaming on mobile phones. But there’s also a huge positive with them, in that communication has never been easier, or better. It’s our responsibility in schools to show the positive aspect of having a mobile phone, what it can be used for in a good way.

Jane Prescott

On the Girls School Association website, Jane says:

“We must find ways to prepare young people for a future that is more globally-connected and globally-aware than ever before. This is a job for schools, parents and society as a whole.”

GSA

Jane makes it clear that the future she sees for young people embraces an understanding of diverse cultures and “Making the most of technology to develop digital projects” and that these two are intimately connected. The article on the GSA website is one of the most refreshing optimistic outlooks on the future of education I have read in a long time.

However, whilst mobile technology is encouraged in lessons, Jane Prescott does point out that there are dangers in mobile phones – which is why her school does ban phones …. during breaks. So the pupils can communicate with each other. How refreshingly different from the approach taken by many schools.

Concern is particularity strong for the impact upon children, who are seen by adults to be forever on their phones. Statista is “a German online portal for statistics, which makes data collected by market and opinion research institutes and data derived from the economic sector and official statistics available in English, French, German and Spanish. It is one of the most successful statistics databases in the world” (Wikipedia). It estimates that an astonishing 58% of 11 year-olds and 93% of 15 year-olds have a mobile phone (Statista, 2019). Given the embedded presence of these devices in our culture there is a need for us to understand the impact this technological development might be having, especially on children.

One viewpoint is that children would be better off reading a book than using their smartphones. However, we should not forget the historical warnings over the danger of the book, nor warnings from parents that children “always have their head in a book“.

No vices are so hard to eradicate as those which are popularly regarded as virtues. Among these the vice of reading is foremost.

Wharton, Edith (1903) The Vice of Reading

A vulgar, detrimental habit, like dram-drinking’ (alcohol), a bodily addiction ‘beyond the reader’s control’. In fact, “reading, as at present conducted, is rapidly destroying all thinking

Austin, Alfred (1874) The Vice of Reading

It is this habit of ceaseless reading … that bodes so much danger to our modern system of enlightenment.

Alfred Ainger (1859). Books and Their Uses

[In the print-free pre-Gutenberg era] there was no wear-and-tear of the mental fibres, and, consequently, there were none of those painful brain and nerve disease that fill our asylums [now]. … With printing and the promiscuous circulation of books the mischief that had broken out in Germany was spread everywhere by insidious contagion, like the Black Death

Innes Shand (1879) Biography, Travel and Sport: Contemporary Literature.

The majority of readers devour the most wretched and tasteless novels … by reading such worthless material people get used to idleness that only the greatest exertion can overcome again’ “they forget the laws of nature … and fall prey to countless errors and transgressions because they can no longer hear their own inner warnings … they kill all desire for activity and work and all love of freedom”  . they become moody, peevish, presumptuous, impatient. … the consequence of such tasteless and mindless reading are thus senseless waste, an insurmountable fear of any kind of exertion, a boundless bent for luxury, repression of the voices of conscience, ennui, and an early death.

Bergk , Johann Adam (1799) Die Kunst, Bucher Zu Lesen

Tobias Dienlin, is a researcher at the University of Hohenheim in the field of communication science and media psychology, specifically interested in how social media affects our privacy and mental health. In a blog titled “Since the advent of smartphones, have we become more or less happy?“, he provides the following public statements:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones. (Twenge, 2017)

Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. (Royal Society for Public Health, 2019)

If you are a child in Kindergarten and the only you’re doing is swiping [on your phone], you will end up as cleaning staff. (Spitzer, 2019)

In response to that he argues:

Personally, my gut reaction to these statements is the following: they’re one-sided, sensationalist, and culture-pessimistic. They remind me of all those cases in which similar claims were staked regarding the deleterious effects of the more traditional forms of media, most of which eventually turned out to be wrong. In Germany, for example, it was once claimed that reading fiction is dangerous and addictive — it even had a name, it was called Lesewut (i.e., reading frenzy). Specifically, after Goethe had published his widely successful The Sorrows of Young Werther, one could learn that “reading fiction has made as many families and people unhappy as the French Revolution” (Johann Heinzman).

(Dienlin, 2019)

These days similar warnings over the dangers of mobile phone use appear just as feverish, as adults struggle to come to terms with children’s contemporary socio-technological behaviour. As with books, smartphones are now a permanent feature of our lives, and so we need to consider how we respond to them professionally. At the moment the response from adults is somewhat akin to fear, with groups of vigilante teachers carrying virtual pitchforks aiming to burn all the phones. The current obsession against mobile phones appears much like yet just another moral panic.

In an article in the online academic magazine The Conversation, Neil Selwyn, an expert in information technology now working in Melbourne takes to task the Victorian education minister James Merlino’s announcement mobile phones will be banned for all students at state primary and secondary schools. Merlino provides quotes from himself, a school principal and a psychologist that mobile phones are a distraction and are the cause of cyberbullying – all devoid of any substantiation or research evidence. Both of these claims are questioned in research I explore below.

Neil Selwyn argues:

But while banning phones from classrooms, and from school altogether, might seem sensible, there are number of reasons to be cautious. It’s clear we need to carefully consider how we want to make use of digital devices being brought into schools. But previous experience, such as in New York, suggests a blanket ban might introduce even more problems. And the little research evidence that addresses the issue is mixed.

Selwyn, 2019

There is a great deal of contemporary interest in what educational research might say about classroom practice, with many commentators claiming support for a variety of practices supposedly derived from research. It is as if “research says” is some holy grail – until of course it says something which conflicts with what you personally believed. In this article I look at research on mobile technology, and in particular mobile phone use on children’s attainment, well-being and general demeanor. My purpose is to provide much more evidence than we are currently being presented with.

This fear over mobile technology in schools is currently particularly pertinent given the doubling in children’s use of technology over the past 10 years (Orben and Przybylski 2019, p. 1). Evidence drawn on by various ‘sides’ in the debate rarely extends beyond the anecdotal and unsystematic, with contributions quickly becoming passionate and heated (See Steers 2016). In most cases, no real data is offered, which is a problem for all of us as we grapple with the question, is mobile technology a friend or foe.

The online academic journal; The Conversation, asked five experts whether mobiles phones should be banned:

So, I began this article on that point.

I would urge caution over jumping on “research- based” bandwagons that merely support one’s own preconceptions. Thierry Karsenti’s research suggests “schools have got to think differently because bans don’t work and demonising mobile phones is counter-productive” (Dabel, 2017). Of course, those who see schools as needing to control children, rather than free them up to explore and learn, will see mobile phones as a threat. Interpretation of research however, is a political matter, as is your own response to this article.

[Go back to beginning]

B. What does the research say?

I will start with some research that has received much attention, most recently in a book by Bradley Busch and Edward Watson (“The Science of Learning. 77 Studies That Every Teacher Needs to Know”) which purports to provide “the most important and influential studies on the topic of learning into accessible and easily digestible overviews” (Busch and Watson, 2019, p. 3 but the book is strangely not paginated). This is a laudable aim and the book does do this. The layout is attractive and consistent, and eminently readable. The downside of accessibility and easily digestion, is, like junk food, not always what provides a healthy diet. Each double page spread about for example “parental praise”, “streaming” along with 75 other topics, briefly summarises one article or report but does so uncritically. Admittedly, the authors do not claim to tell us whether the studies are valid, justified or well-designed. It is not clear whether they do have the expertise to even do this. The danger however is that practitioners will assume they do, and the “published book effect” may lead busy practitioners to conclude that it must be true because it is in a book. Unfortunately, evaluating and critiquing social research is not a skill many classroom practitioners have, and this leaves many in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions.

Please do not get me wrong. Bradley and Edward have in many ways done a good job on this book, but they have only done half the job. This may be because they do not come from a research culture, being from Inner Drive UK, which describes itself as:

We help people achieve their full potential in Education, Business and Sport. We specialise in realising the potential behind the application of Growth Mindset, Metacognition and stress management strategies to improve motivation, learning and confidence. (https://www.innerdrive.co.uk/)

They describe themselves as:

Edward Watson, a retired Army major, management consultant and entrepreneur and Bradley Busch, a HCPC registered psychologist.

There was a recent tweet by Bernie Westacott (@berniewestacott) on Study 49 on “The One About Mobile Phones”, and this interested and worried me for a number of reasons. It received 115 “likes” and was tweeted 42 times. So, I looked further by going back to the original research.

The research summary (Beland and Murphy, 2015) comes from a report written by two economists based in the USA (Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy) and published by the Centre for Economic Performance (https://cep.lse.ac.uk/) which is:

“an interdisciplinary research centre at the London School of Economics Research Laboratory dedicated to the study of economic performance at the levels of the firm, national economy and global economy”

https://cep.lse.ac.uk/

The report was subsequently published in the peer reviewed Labour Economics (Beland and Murphy, 2016). The research can be found at http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1350.pdf. The research itself is only 17 pages long but comes with some pretty hefty statistics. Though this need not put people off, as you do not really need to understand their analytical model:

This is a good example of the way in which research might be used erroneously and uncritically. The Science of Learning is an interesting book, and is nicely laid out, but each double page spread only considers one article/report and does so uncritically. I can see the advantages here in terms of simplicity. However, let us not get carried away, as there are serious issues with this particular piece of research and as a single article is being presented by the book’s authors as definitive; it isn’t.

For example, it fails to report on a similar Swedish study published in 2019 with a significantly larger sample which reported “no impact of mobile phone bans on student performance” (Kessel et al., 2019 p. 1).

What I hope to illustrate in this article is that research needs to be carefully examined and systematically scrutinised, but that this is not a simple process. We also need to be cautious of relying on one single study, and need to examine the context and the methodology and the appropriateness of the research design. Both Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy are economists, and a strength of their quantitative research is in its statistical modelling of complex data. The weakness, as I will go on to illustrate, is in their failure to fully understand the nature of the context they examine. Their quantitative methodology fits within an econometric paradigm, but is incapable of interpretation within naturalistic contexts. This results in their failure to attend to any causal mechanisms.

Methodological Critique

In their book, The Science of Learning, Bradley Busch and Edward Watson do not scrutinise the methodology used in the research they summarise. This is a major weakness because it overlooks some serious issues of interpretation, potentially leading to the adoption of unjustified conclusions. So, let me look in more detail at the original research on which Study 49 is based.

Berland and Murphy were interested in the effect that a ban on mobile phones would have upon pupils’ achievement in school. They give their rationale for the study as follows:

There are, however, potential drawbacks to new technologies, as they may provide distractions and reduce productivity. Mobile phones can be a source of great disruption in workplaces and classrooms, as they provide individuals with access to texting, games, social media and the Internet. Given these features, mobile phones have the potential to reduce the attention students pay to classes and can therefore be detrimental to learning.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 2)

This then at the outset locates the research within a particular framework of technology as disruptive, rather than one which examines the role mobile phones can and do play in the classroom. They sent a survey round to all secondary schools in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester asking about school policy on the control of mobile phones.

We did not obtain permission from five Local Authorities in London (Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets), which combined have 77 secondary schools. The City of London Authority does not contain any public schools and therefore was not approached. The remaining 27 London Local Authorities gave permission, with 337 secondary schools being approached…. We received completed surveys from 91 schools, which represents 21% of the target high schools in the four cities in our sample.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 6)

Hence the study is based upon 91 schools who returned the survey, 90 of which had some ban on mobile phones. At this point they have no measure of how representative this sample is of mobile phone policy across the UK.

They took the UK National Pupil Database over a number of years and used this to undertake a number of calculations on “student achievement is based on GCSE test scores …based on an individual’s sum of these GCSE points, standardized nationally each year” (Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 6)

They used a multicomponent model to calculate the difference in levels of achievement between schools that banned mobile phones before and after any ban. The determination and analysis of these scores is pretty statistically robust and justified; this is a strength of the report. They conclude:

This paper investigates the impact of restricting mobile phone use in schools on student productivity. We combine survey data on mobile phone policies in schools in four cities in England with administrative data on student achievement to create a history of student performance in schools. By exploiting differences in implementation dates, our results indicate that there is an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation in schools that have introduced a mobile phone ban.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 17)

The conclusion in (Beland and Murphy, 2016) merely excluded the 6.4σ% figure. There are though a number of methodological issues with this research which undermines these conclusions presented in The Science of Learning. I would say that the statistical analysis in Beland and Murphy is rather robust (and will be of interest to those of a statistical persuasion). So, I have no argument that they are robustly calculating something. I am just not sure we really know what that is. Specifically, it is not clear how strong the effect of a ban is, once the 95% confidence intervals are taken into account.

They report the 0.0641σ figure as a contrast:

After a ban has been introduced, the average student attending that school has 6.41% of a standard deviation greater gains in test scores compared to a school that did not introduce a ban.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 12)

The statement in The Science of Learning that “Students who attended a school that banned mobile phones received, on average a 6.4% increase in exam results” (#49) is slightly misleading. The “improvement in student performance” was compared to a school that didn’t introduce a ban”. The difficulty here is that we do not know who these schools are being compared with as they only have data on one school which they knew didn’t introduce a ban (pps. 7-8). Whilst this comparison may indeed be accurate, it is hardly convincing.

They argue

schools in our sample over the 2001-2011 period have a higher gain in test scores than the average school.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 7)

This “average school” is not defined, so we might assume it is through some statistical calculation on all schools either nationally or in the four cities sampled. Given a possible widespread policy of banning mobile phones, we might reasonably expect this “average school” to also have a ban on mobile phones, yet they obtained no data on this.

Hence, the problem here is that it is somewhat dubious linking an increase in GCSE scores to banning mobile phones, since the research has no way of identifying whether the increase is actually due to the restriction of mobile phones or something else. They seem to have identified an association through their model, but of course, there may have been an underlying reason why some schools decided to introduce a ban which in itself was the cause of the change and which has not been accounted for. Beland and Murphy did account for whether there was any changes in school management along with other measures of change in pupil characteristics. These form some of the terms in their model. Yet, there may be other “unknown unknowns” at work here. Their research design was not able to identify these.

Thirdly, and most seriously, they have not looked into schools that do use mobile technology as a learning tool. Their school survey had a 21% response rate – 91 schools out of 337 – a not unusual rate of response. However, the survey only looked at the control of a mobile phones as deviant behaviour. The survey asked about how mobile phones were controlled.

The survey contained questions about the school’s current policy toward mobile phones, when it was implemented, whether there was a previous mobile phone policy and, if so, when it was implemented.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p7)

The full set of 5 questions can be seen on page 71 of the report. It appears that of the 91 schools that replied to the survey, 90 had introduced mobile phone bans; 1 hadn’t (pps. 7-8). So, their sample only included one school which didn’t ban mobile phones. Beland and Murphy compared the characteristics of their 90 schools to the national database, and did that robustly:

The responding schools look very similar to other schools in their cities in terms of their age 16 test scores, SEN, FSM and gender make up.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 8)

However, they have next to no data specifically on schools that were in their sample but who allow pupils to have free use of mobile phones. It is conceivable that such schools might have seen the survey and decided it was not for them. Beland and Murphy have no data on this because the NPD does not hold such data as mobile phone use. Hence the comparison group is not well-defined in terms of the key characteristic of mobile phone bans.

Fourthly, “banning mobile phones” did not mean phones were actually absent from the school, as Headteachers were asked to score how effective their ban was adhered to:

Headteachers were asked to rate the extent to which the policy is adhered to by students on a seven-point scale with 1 representing “Not at all” and 7 representing “Completely.” A school was considered to have a high compliance ban if the response was greater than four.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 14, footnote 16)

So, a ban might mean a lot of phones were still around. I have to admit to finding it strange that heads were asked to respond that they had a policy but no one complied.

There is a further point here arising from the data that Beland and Murphy use; they do not have any data on the use of mobile technology in the schools, merely a statement of policy on pupils’ own mobiles (BYOD). It is quite conceivable that some schools provided pupils with devices to use in the place of their own mobiles, and some school indeed do this. Ityis not possible to disentangle this effect in the data Beland and murphy used.

Given the focus upon GCSE scores, the research uses a rather blunt instrument, and allows the press to call for complete bans on mobile phones – as indeed most did at the time. However, little is made of one other finding, that the effect of a mobile phone ban on younger pupils is not significant:

[on] the impact on test scores at age 14. We find the impact of the ban remains positive but is smaller and not significant.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p14)

So, maybe, if mobile phones do not seem to distract younger pupils, this might be the point at which they could be effectively incorporated into a technologically-aware pedagogy. A measured discussion of mobile phone bans along these lines appeared in Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, where Cat Scutt, (2019) presents arguments against banning mobile phones, principal amongst which is the school’s duty to teaching about responsible use of mobile phones. This comes across, as I show later, as an important distinguishing stance between those who want to exploit mobile devices for learning, and those who want to ban them.

Ideological Critique of Belan and Murphy

A critique of methodology needs to be supported by a theoretical and ideological critique by looking at the underlying assumptions and the paradigm within which the research sits. What question was the research intending to answer and what were the underlying assumptions underpinning those questions? In this case the research appears to be based on the presumption of mobile phone as deviant device whose place is as a potential distraction; the survey instrument illustrates that. This is also evidenced in one comment over the “potential” distraction of pupils by mobile phones where the research wanders the off-track laid down by their data:

There are, however, potential drawbacks to new technologies, as they may provide distractions and reduce productivity. Mobile phones can be a source of great disruption in workplaces and classrooms, as they provide individuals with access to texting, games, social media and the Internet.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p.2)

We might say the same, and some indeed do, about classroom displays, yet Beland and Murphy have absolutely no data on the use of mobile phones in the school and in the classrooms nor on any distraction which makes the following claim quite unsubstantiated:

The results suggest that low-achieving students are more likely to be distracted by the presence of mobile phones.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p.3)

Although we do not know which individuals owned mobile phones, it is reported that over 90% of teenagers owned a mobile phone during this period in England; therefore, any ban is likely to affect the vast majority of students (Ofcom 2006, 2011).3 Even if a student does not own a phone themselves their presence in the classroom may cause distraction.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 3)

This research is a purely quantitative study, located within a positivist framework, where anything worthy of study has to be both quantifiable and measurable. For example, their model for the test score, Y, of student i in high school s, in year t, is given as:

There is however no measure of disruption or even of mobile phone use in schools by pupils and no observation or interview data was collected. The research does not look into the use of mobile technology to enhance learning and consequently the conclusion, that mobile phone bans enhance student learning, is influenced by a mobile phone as deviance framework. This is evidenced in:

The psychological literature has also found that multitasking is detrimental to learning and task execution in experimental contexts. Recent experimental papers present evidence that mobile phone use while executing another task decrease learning and task completion.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 4)

The existing literature on the impact of technology in the classroom implies that the unstructured presence of technology has ambiguous impacts on student achievement. We add to this by illustrating that a highly multipurpose technology, such as mobile phones, can have a negative impact on productivity through distraction. Schools that restrict access to mobile phones subsequently experience an improvement in test scores.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 17)

Here, mobile phone use is seen as “another task”, rather than an integral part of the learning sequence, whose use is “unstructured”. The alternative hypothesis, that mobile phones are part of a modern innovation that could revolutionise teaching and learning, gets one sentence:

However, these findings do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured. Our findings suggest that the presence of mobile phones in schools should not be ignored.

(Beland and Murphy, 2015, p. 17)

Beland and Murphy had no actual data on mobile phone use in the classroom, yet they go on to draw unsubstantiated conclusions on their use. It is no surprise then that other studies (Ferguson, 2017; Karsenti, 2018; Kessel, Hardardottir and Tyrefors, 2019; Orben, Dienlinc & Przybylski, 2019; Walker, 2013) undertaken in the UK, Sweden and Canada, come to a quite different set of conclusions.

The problems with Beland and Murphy

Hence, there are a number of problems with the Beland and Murphy research which I have outlined above. A number of these and other problems were identified by Mike Cameron at the time in his blog: “On research and banning things“.

  • There is no data on mobile phone usage or ownership;
  • Their survey contains only school level data on mobile phones, not classroom or individual use;
  • The measure of “ban on mobile phones” is a headteacher’s interpretation, and is open to confirmatory bias;
  • School achievement data fails to discriminate between schools with and without a ban;
  • Sample small (91) and biased (90 had an existing ban);
  • There is no causal mechanism identifiable in the data analysis.

Yet, notwithstanding these issues, the study went on to be widely cited in the press.

Even some schools, have begun drawing on the study in order to justify their bans on mobile phones:

Though not all schools do take this approach. Ysgol Uwchradd Caergybi in Holyhead, Anglesey, has now relaxed a previous ban and now uses phones as a “powerful” educational tool (BBC, 2019a). After consultation, they relaxed the previous policy and now teachers bring smartphones into use in the class.

We spent too much time challenging children for using phones during the day and that took time from things which were more important – the child’s education. Also it created a negative atmosphere during the day. I think as a school, we’ve got a responsibility to teach our students how to use technology effectively… and prepare our students for the world of work.

Head teacher, Adam Williams

The BBC reported that

Mr Williams went on to say he had not seen any negative impact on pupil wellbeing and nearly all children have a smartphone, with devices being shared to make sure no one misses out. Pupil Harrison, 15, has found it beneficial in many ways: “We can check our progress. We can see homework that needs to be handed in and we can just do revision at break times or when we have free lessons. “My parents think it’s a good idea because they can see if I need more help at home and they can track what I’m doing.” He likes using educational videos “to learn through listening and watching things rather than copying things down” and Kahoot, an app which provides a quick way for teachers to quiz pupils to check their learning.

(BBC, 2019a)

Careless citations

So how has the research Beland and Murphy become so widely cited and acclaimed, when there are so many problems with its interpretation? The problem with the widespread circulation of Beland and Murphy can be seen as an example of the careless citations problem as discussed by Jon Brock, (2019) citing a study by Kåre Letrud and Sigbjørn Hernes (2019) titled “Affirmative citation bias in scientific myth debunking“. They studied over 600 articles that cited known controversial studies and identified the vast majority demonstrated a tendency to affirm uncritically the contested findings resulting in a proliferation of citation hiking and a proliferation of uncritical presentations. I maintain the same is happening with Beland and Murphy.

Once misconceptions proliferate wide and long enough, criticizing them not only becomes increasingly difficult, efforts may even contribute to the continued spreading of the myths.

(Brock, 2019)

It is interesting that other studies, with results conflicting with those of Beland and Murphy, do not appear to receive the same treatment – possibly because they do not suit the needs of newspaper headline writers to broadcast conservative predictions of impending moral panic.

Rather than retreating into a pre-technological age, maybe we ought to recognise “the promise and potential of using mobile devices in education is rapidly becoming apparent” (Crompton and Traxler, 2015, p. 1). Consequently, we should now be trying to integrate mobile devices into schools and to support learners who will after all be growing into a world so different from that inhabited by that their teachers inhabited as children? This is what is happening in three other studies in Sweden, Canada and the UK, where a more progressive approach has been adopted producing quite different results from Beland ands Murphy.

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C. Sweden – Structured Technology

A team of three researchers from Stockholm attempted to replicate Beland and Murphy’s research with more recent data and a much larger sample, surveying the whole of Sweden and obtained 1,086 replies to their survey out of 1,423 compared to the 91 for Beland and Murphy. They conclude:

We find that mobile phone bans have no impact on student performance, and we can reject even very small effects of banning mobile phones in the Swedish setting. Based on the evidence in this study, our policy advice to is that while introducing a mobile phone ban is tempting due to its low cost nature, such a ban should not be expected to produce substantial gains in student performance.

(Kessel, Hardardottir and Tyrefors, 2019, p. 3)

Their results presented in a similar form to that of Beland and Murphy, show even smaller effects.

Kessel et al. point to two reasons why their study produced different results to Beland and Murphy, both of which highlight methodological weaknesses in Beland and Murphy. First their survey only asked heads for school policy on banning mobile phones, and so did not reflect actual practice in classrooms, where individual teachers may impose their own “out of sight” bans or even embrace pupil use.

First, teachers may in fact already have mobile phone bans in practice in the classroom regardless of school policy.

(Kessel, Hardardottir and Tyrefors, 2019, p. 3)

Secondly, it is possible that teachers use mobile technology creatively and constructively in lessons given considerable government investment in digital technology:

Swedish schools have since long made large investments in digital technologies and devices, for example laptops and tablets. Both on a national and local level there have been plenty of initiatives to integrate the devices into classroom practice Therefore, the use of digital technology is quite intertwined with practice in Swedish schools. To implement a ban in such a setting may well be ineffectual.

(Kessel, Hardardottir and Tyrefors, 2019, p. 3)

This is a very significant point, as it suggests that there are quite divergent ways of looking at mobile technology in schools. The first, that they are an inherent danger, seems to be on the ascendance. The second, that they provide huge benefits in a digitised world that current learners ought to be prepared for, and arguably are better prepared than many teachers.

If we can encourage teachers to move from fear of indiscipline to embracing the potential of 21st century technology, we might move closer to Sweden:

Schools are also encouraged to develop the pedagogical usage of digital technology as tools for learning in school practice. Mobile phones have typically not been included. Nevertheless, students have brought their mobile phones to school and used them for school work and for example the case study by Olin-Scheller & Tanner (2015) find that mobile phones are mostly used between assignments and the use does not general disturb teaching. Taken all together, this indicates a structured use of digital technology. This may well be one important distinguishing feature explaining the difference in results with B&M, as they focus more on unstructured use.

(Kessel, Hardardottir and Tyrefors, 2019, pp. 17-18 )

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D. Canada – Pragmatism

Further research has been undertaken in Canada by Professor Thierry Karsenti of the University of Montreal who studied mobile phone use and claims that banning their use is ineffective. Karsenti, (2018) has argued:

[Pupils] were becoming themselves more responsible in those schools where cells were allowed with specific rules because schools help them become more responsible. Otherwise who’s going to help them become more responsible?

(McQuigge, 2017)

One school Karsenti studied allowed students to use their phones as they wished outside of class, but insisted they keep the devices in plain sight and face-down on their desks during class time. Such an approach strikes the right balance, he said, since it still gives teachers the flexibility to tap into the technology for their lessons while limiting distractions among students.

A growing number of school boards say they’ve had more success once deciding to stop fighting the technological tide and exploring ways to incorporate mobile phones into schools. One school Karsenti look at permitted students to use their phones outside of class as they wished, but were kept visible and face-down on their desks during class time. He said this approach strikes the right balance and still gives teachers the flexibility to tap into the technology for their lessons. Smartphones are here to stay and they do have a place as learning tools and as organisational tools. They can be used for research and educational apps and some apps like SIMS Student have been designed to help students so they can check their timetable, look at homework assigned to them, see how they are progressing against targets and receive reminder alerts. When a mobile phone is used in this way then students can be more engaged, informed and motivated and can start to use a phone more maturely. Schools need to find ways to work mobile phones into the curriculum and help students be responsible users of technology.

(Dabel, 2017)

The key points here are that mobile phones are not even “the future“, but for many young people are already the present. They use them in a comprehensive and synchronised way to manage their lives. Furthermore, incorporating these devices into schools is not rocket science, nor a heresy, but rather, it can be adapted quite straightforwardly into good practice.

In an article titled “What does the research say“, in the Australian magazine Teacher, Dominique Russell (2018) discusses three studies that present positive arguments for mobile devices in schools from the UK (Walker, 2013) and the USA (Grant et al., 2015; Thomas and Muñoz, 2016). What sets these out from much of the research, is their being based within real classrooms, though they take somewhat different approaches, as I will go on to discuss.

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E. UK – What the Kids Think

The UK study by Ros Walker, of the University of Huddersfield, is titled “I don’t think I would be where I am right now” and provides us with pupils’ views on using mobiles. It concludes:

There is clear evidence that many pupils feel that they are deriving educational benefit from the use of their devices. They are using many of the features of their devices and often finding creative ways to employ these features in their schoolwork, both at home and at school.

(Walker, 2013, p. 11)

This is remarkably different from much well-published research, a finding which potentially derives from the methodology adopted. This is a naturalistic study, based in real classrooms, with real pupils. Ros Walker worked in two schools, one that banned mobiles and one that provided all pupils with an iPod Touch to use in school and home. In the first school:

… pupils are allowed mobile phones in school providing they are kept out of sight and switched to ‘‘silent’’. Teachers do not encourage pupils to use their devices for learning.

(Walker, 2013, p. 3)

In the second school:

The senior management agreed to supply pupils with a device (iPod Touch), specifically for the purpose of improving learning outcomes. This initiative has been accompanied by significant curriculum and organisational changes.

(Walker, 2013, p. 3)

The research was aimed at exploring whether pupils (aged 14-16) used their mobiles phones for learning. What is significant is that pupils in both schools did extensively use their phones because of the wide range of tools that were integrated into the devices and which now formed part of the young people’s everyday lives:

a telephone, Internet connectivity, a camera, email, SMS, a calendar, a notepad, audio, video, a clock with alarm and an address book, applications which potentially extend hugely the functionality of the device.

(Walker, 2013, p. 2)

Each of these functions were exploited for learning, including email and text to discuss work with other students, photographing their own or the teachers’ work.

The data for this study were drawn from:

  • a questionnaire to 400 students;
  • observations at the school where devices can be used during lessons;
  • four pupils at each school kept a diary for 24 hours, recording all their mobile device use;
  • four pupils in both schools were interviewed.

Now, it may be argued that such a small-scale study is very limited when compared to a large sample survey. However such an in-depth qualitative case study, based upon interrelated data, can tell us a great deal about the particular context, from which we can explore the potential for extrapolation and generalisation. What this study does do is draw on evidence of actual mobile phone use, and actual mobile phone users – unlike Beland and Murphy. Large scale surveys, favoured by some as real research, cannot access such data because their spread eclipses their reach. The downside of small-scale is Ros Walker’s reach, limits the spread. However it gives us insights into human practices and behaviours that surveys are not designed to provide. So unlike Beland and Murphy, Walker’s work provides us with a more nuanced perspective on how the mobile phone debate works out in practice, at the very least in the (two) locations that were explored. The issue for generalisability is whether there might be something specific about these sites which limit the validity of the findings in other contexts. The description of the sites and the selection of them as cases within the study allows us to make that judgment for ourselves.

The results showed that (only) 74% of pupils used mobile devices to help with learning in the school where they were allowed, as opposed to 43% of pupils where they were banned. This was higher than expected, “given that no one had ever asked the pupils there to use their devices. This means that the pupils are using them with their own initiative” (Walker, 2013, p. 6) even when the devices are banned by the school.

In particular, the pupils in both schools used the organisational features of mobiles – calendar, alarm, notes, to keep up to date, and because, that is what young people do. Yet schools still seem to insist on paper planners which are used in a rather perfunctory way. In the school that allowed mobiles, there were no paper planners, and pupils used the calendar, and audio visual tools, such as camera, voice recorder, video to capture key content:

the camera was also used a considerable amount – to take photographs of teacher’s work on the board, to take photos of pupils’ own work (such as Science experiments) and for creative purposes (e.g. Art lessons).

(Walker, 2013, p. 8)

Pupils also used communication tools – email, text, video calling etc. – to keep in touch over school work. Surprisingly this was more common in the school that banned mobile phones, possibly because it served a dispersed rural community.

Cyberbullying, often suggested by opponents of mobile devices as a key detractor, was not seen as a particular problem by pupils. In fact bullying was less of an issue in the school which permitted mobiles. It may be bullying, of which cyberbullying is a component, could be more a feature of underlying school and management cultures than availability of mobile devices.; across the schools, 70% of pupils indicated they would be happy to have the devices in class regardless of any possible uses for cyberbullying.

What Ros Walker shows is that it is possible for mobiles to be permitted and for this not to cause many of the problems predicted by many teachers who might never have experienced a mobile rich environment.

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F. USA – Bring your own or use ours

The study by Michael Grant (2015), and his co-authors took place in the USA and formed the doctoral study of the first author. As a result of increasing penetration of mobile devices into society and education, they looked at how teachers were using such devices, what support they received, and what barriers they experienced. They used a definition of “mobile device” as those that learners are accustomed to “carrying around with them…[which they]… regard as friendly and personal” (Traxler, 2007, p. 129)

Their study was of 9 teachers of mixed grender, ethnicity, experience and state. All were located through a variety of methods, and data consisted of semi structured interviews with the teachers. Data collection and analysis were carried out by student researchers under the supervision and guidance of doctoral supervisors. The article is extremely detailed in terms of description of participants and data analysis.

However, an additional factor is the nature of the devices used.

None of the schools our participants were teaching in were implementing a bring your own device (BYOD) or bring your own technology (BYOT) program

(Grant et al., 2015, p. 41)

Hence this study does not provide confirmation or refutation for the incorporation of BYOD mobile phones. What it does do is suggest some themes that teachers encounter in using mobile technology which will however need to be considered if and when pupils are permitted to BYOD.

  • Ownership and control of the mobile devices;
  • Institutional support and advocacy for using mobile devices;
  • Devices used to enhance the curriculum and foster motivation;
  • Teacher receive relevant professional development;
  • Technical support was available.

A point Grant et al. make is that internationally the research on mobile devices, and the availability of mobile phones in schools, is very limited and as such “there is still little confirming research determining the effectiveness of these devices” (Grant et al., 2015, p. 42). A corollary of this is there is little research confirming the danger of such devices.

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G. Are Phones Actually a Distraction?

A rather unfortunate and unjustified use of research can be seen in a blog post by Daisy Christodoulou (2016) which makes claims about “the effect of mobile phone use in the classroom” on the basis on just one non-naturalistic, experimental study in the USA. The claim made is:

Research on the use of mobile phones in classrooms tends to find that mobile phones are distracting – but most it involves students engaging with irrelevant content.

(Christodoulou, 2016)

The claim that “research …tends to find” is quite unjustified here, as there is so little research on the use of mobiles in the classroom and there is no evidence that Daisy Christodoulou has examined what research there is. Rather she draws on a single study, whose very aim was to introduce irrelevant content into the classroom. The study referred to was:

… by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, Stevie Munz, and Scott Titsworth, ‘Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning’, broke new ground. This study, analysing an experiment carried out among US undergraduate students, was instead designed so that some students would use their mobiles to engage with content of relevance for the lesson. It also attempted to tease out the separate effects of (1) responding to queries posed by someone else, (2) creating messages, and (3) the frequency of messaging.  

(Christodoulou, 2016)

By stating the research was “designed so that some students would use their mobiles to engage with content of relevance for the lesson“, rather ignores the fact that in the study

…students were asked to either create or respond to simulated messages that were either related or unrelated to the topic of a simulated classroom lecture.

(Kuznekoff, Munz and Titsworth, 2015, p. 345)

The claim that this study “broke new ground” is again difficult to see. The study was a classical experimental design located in undergraduate classes in the USA, where student had unfettered access to their own mobile phones. The study was specifically designed to examine the effect of receiving and sending text messages that were unrelated to the material in the lecture.

What the study identifies, is that in college courses, when students engage in “non course-related” activity, (i.e. texting, accessing social media making), they get distracted and this “has a negative effect on student learning” (p. 348). They quote from another study into multitasking by Reynol Junco and Sheila Cotton (2012) who found that “engaging in Facebook or texting … taxes the student’s limited capacity for cognitive processing and precluded deeper learning“. Not only do I not find that at all remarkable, but it is so far removed from the context in schools as to be virtually irrelevant in discussions of mobiles in the school classroom.

The authors do however acknowledge that:

the popularity of mobile devices and social networking sites is unlikely to diminish, and we must examine the effects these devices and services will have on various aspects of daily life. Some scholars predict that, by 2025, digital technology will disrupt most traditional models of doing business (i.e., 20th century mindsets), and education is one industry that will most notably be impacted. Thus, focusing attention on the effects these devices and services have on student learning and the college classroom is of paramount importance if we, as educators, are to continue to work with students effectively in helping them achieve their educational goals.

(Kuznekoff, Munz, and Titsworth, 201, p. 346)

In this context use of the term “disruptive” should be seen as a “disruptive technology” – a technological innovation which ‘disrupts’ pre-existing ways of doing things and thus forces a rethink, rather than as smaller-scale classroom disruption.

Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.

(Smith, 2019)

Mobiles phones are virtually ubiquitous and are already changing how we do things. Holding a telescope to our blind eye, will not help us see further into the technological future that pupils will inhabit. The key finding of this study however is this, whilst being engaged in non-course related activity disrupted the students’ learning:

our study found that students who abstained from using their mobile devices, or engaged in class relevant texting, earned a 10–17% higher percentage grade on a multiple-choice test, scored 53–70% higher on information recall, and scored 51–58% higher on note taking, than those groups engaged in Twitter and irrelevant texting.

(Kuznekoff, Munz, and Titsworth, 2015, p. 363)

This then is “the effect of mobile phone use in the classroom“. Where integrated into the course material and pedagogy, students experienced “10–17% higher percentage grade on a multiple-choice test, scored 53–70% higher on information recall, and scored 51–58% higher on note taking“. Not a bad result for the constructive use of mobile phones.

Neil Selwyn (2019) points to the difficulty of identifying the impact of “off-task” behavior in the literature:

There is also a growing literature exploring the links between digital devices and classroom distractions. The presence of phones in the classroom is certainly found to be a source of multi-tasking among students of all ages – some of which can be educationally relevant and much of which might not. But the impact of these off-task behaviours on student learning outcomes is difficult to determine.

Selwyn, 2019

He points to a review of 132 studies by Quan Chen and Zhen Yan (2016) on multitasking with mobile phones which concluded, it is

difficult to determine directions and mechanisms of the causal relations between mobile phone multitasking and academic performance.

Chen and Yan, 2016, p . 41

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H. Where Mobiles Work

Liz Kolb, has worked with the use of mobile phones for some time in the USA and in her book, Cell Phones in the Classroom (2011), writes that:

Teachers told me that they did not have any discipline problems when using the students’ cell phones. Indeed, many of the teachers claimed that using cell phones for learning actually cut down on discipline problems in school related to cell phone use.

(Kolb, 2011)

Why might this be and why is it so different from how many teachers portrasty potential mobile usage in the UK? In the UK there is an unfortunate widespreads ban on mobile phones. So when banned, having a mobile is an expression of deviance. Once mobile phones are embraced, welcomes and legitimised, and their presence creatively dealt with, this relationship inevitably changes.

In an article titled “Adventures with Cell Phones” (Kolb, 2010), Liz Kolb describes examples of teachers using mobile phones creatively and effectively in the classroom.

When I was a high school technology coordinator and secondary social studies teacher, I wrote strong policies to keep student cell phones out of my school because of the distraction and cheating they could cause. Today, I hear many other educators express the same concerns. They worry that allowing cell phones in schools will lead to more problems with cheating, distraction, sexting, or general laziness in learning. Although I believe we should not ignore these concerns (see “Using Cell Phones Appropriately,” p. 42), I’ve changed my perspective in the last five years. After using cell phones in my own teaching at the University of Michigan, I’ve become a strong advocate for allowing teachers and schools to use them as a learning tool.

(Kolb, 2010, p. 40)

I would challenge any teacher not to be excited by some of the possibilities Liz Kolb presents in her work.

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I. Smartphones and Cognition – Reviewing the Research

Whilst there is very little research on mobile phones in school classrooms, there is a substantial amount of work on mobile technology. A recent review of research on smartphones by Henry Wilmer, Lauren Sherman and Jason Chein (2017), three psychologists from Temple University in Philadelphia attempted to provide an overview of what we know about the effects upon cognition. It is important to bear in mind this is not an empirical study in its own right, but a review of almost 100 empirical research studies undertaken between 2007 and 2016. The full paper can be downloaded here but a summary might be helpful. I will endeavour to make this accessible. I have however drawn extensively on the text in the paper.

First what does the review not examine? There are four areas Wilmer et al. do not look into, because these are all examined elsewhere (and they give 11 links to such studies) and because to do so would divert away from their main interests:

  • impact of violent video games;
  • use of mobile phones and overuse addiction;
  • effects of radio-frequency fields;
  • effects of mobile phones on social competencies.

They do look at the association between smartphone technology and cognitive and affective functioning, However, much of the work they review comes from adults placed in experimental situations or drawing on self-report data. Wilmer, Sherman and Chen do not undertake a critical scrutiny of the research they review, so in this regard does not constitute what I would consider to be a “literature review“; rather it is a “summary of research“. I have not had the opportunity of going through each study myself, but have accessed some, so I will only be able to provide a snapshot of a critique.

Scope of the study

The authors identify the scope of their study early on as follows:

  • Start from the premise that smartphones are an especially impactful technological development, due to their flexibility, portability, and proliferation;
  • Explore the consequences of typical everyday smartphone use, rather “problem” behaviour;
  • Examine the impacts in four areas that are widely discussed in the media and that have consideration in empirical work:
    • attention
    • memory and knowledge
    • delay of gratification
    • executive functioning and academic performance.

Their lack of any systematic scrutiny of the research they review, mean that potentially any weakness in the original research not only transfers to this review, but in so doing confers legitimacy upon studies which perhaps require more circumspection. In addition, it contributes to affirmative citation bias identified by Kåre Letrud and Sigbjørn Hernes (2019).

After exploring some methodological problems, I will summarize their review under the four headings above

methodological problems

Before I explore the claims in the review, it is important to provide some context for the research. It might be presumed, often by those not experienced in research practice, that the research endeavour is merely a practical one. Collect data, tell us what it says. However, those of us who have been active researchers for decades know to our frustration that, as the Rolling Stones told us in 1969, “you can’t always get what you want“, however “if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need“. Wilmer et al. seem to have got what they needed; an overview of research studies on smartphones. Whether this is what the teaching profession wants, is another question.

in order to set the scene, it is important to explore what research can and cannot tell us about the research question. The authors identify five key methodological problems in researching the impact of mobile phone usage (p. 2), each of which put limits upon how we ought to interpret research findings.

1. Mobile phones are so ubiquitous that it is very difficult to identify different effects through experimental methods, especially with the so called “gold standard” of randomised controlled trials, since it is virtually impossible to find sufficient people who do not have one. Those who do not have a phone will be confounded on their apparent disparity with social norms. Such studies as there are identify correlations from which inferences on causality are difficult if not impossible to identify.

2. Much research is based upon self-report data on mobile phone usage and, as explained in the article by Scharkow (2016), such data provides highly unreliable indices of actual behaviour and offers only modest correlates with behaviour.

3. The rapidity changing landscape of mobile technology means that studies and research instruments have a limited half-life, often becoming out of data even before the research studies are published.

4. Smartphones are a relatively recent phenomenon being only 20 years old. Widespread ownership is much more recent. This means we do not have reliable and generalizable longitudinal data. Consequently we do not know what connections are transient and what might be lasting.

5. Assessing technology usage is intrusive. By trying to assess smartphone use we can influence the very behaviour itself by drawing peoples attention to their own behaviour.

The authors, however, do not provide us with the detail of how they undertook this review of around 100 academic papers, nor do they go through an extensive and forensic analysis of the research. My presumption in the absence of anything to the contrary, is they did little more than present us with the summary of the findings in each. This is important because we do need to know how to interpret the results of research by understanding something of the context within which the research studies were undertaken.

How useful is this review?

I take the position here that we need to be looking for guidance on how we should respond to the research as practitioners facing real practical concerns. The main problem with this review for teachers, is paradoxically one of its strengths; it provides a global scrutiny of the social impact of smartphones. In this way, any conclusions would apply equally well to teachers in school, MPs in Parliament, students in higher education, and to individuals reading blogs on their smartphones.

attention

This first aspect of smartphone use looks at the impact of having a device always on hand upon our capacity to focus our attention on a task. Wilmer et al. report that the research provides some limited empirical support for claims about the effect of smartphone technology on our attentional capacities.

Studies drawn on in their review looked at “focused attention“, which “refers to the capacity to attend to only one source of information while ignoring other incoming stimuli … the ability to maintain a directed attentional focus over an extended period of time” (p. 4) compared to “divided attention” or “the ability to perform two or more functions simultaneously, otherwise known as multitasking” (p. 4).

We do need to be aware that the immediacy of communication can create an emotional pull to respond, which might well distract or detract from a task. It is illegal to text whilst driving in the UK for example, which seems sensible. However, this seems to be more of an issue for the staff meeting, than the mathematics lesson where there might reasonably be some form of avoidance. Strategies for overcoming the “immediacy” effect is not difficult for experienced classroom teachers as we see here and here.

However, whilst our anecdotal experience is probably very strong, the research evidence for the impact of smartphones on attention is weak:

While there is clear evidence that engagement with smart devices can have an acute impact on ongoing cognitive tasks, the evidence on any long-term impacts of smartphone-related habits on attentional functioning is quite thin, and somewhat equivocal. Where more controlled assessment of attentional performance has been deployed, such as with media multitasking, the results are mixed, with some studies even yielding a positive relationship with the ability to filter distractions.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 7)

memory and knowledgE

The easy access to the internet, and the capacity to store almost limitless information on a device in our pocket, may have an impact on how much we remember in various ways. This is termed “off-loading our semantic memory“. Wilmer et al. surveyed the research on how much we remembered (or could recall) and noticed when we had a digital record and when we didn’t. There are various elements of this:

  • Whether depending on Google is supplanting our facility with remembering;
  • Whether taking photographs restricts or enhances our observational capacity;
  • Whether using GPS navigation systems weaken our internal spatial representations.

However, as with attentional impact, the body of empirical evidence demonstrating tangible effects of mobile media devices
on memory and knowledge is limited.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

So, we really don’t know. Research produces conflicting and unconvincing results possibly because the question “does having immediate and constant access to the internet/visual/GPS weaken or strengthen our attentional behaviour?” is poorly formed. We may need to think differently. For example, “under what internal and external conditions does using a GPS strengthen our internal spatial representation?” might be more helpful.

However, even when research does find a connection between internet use and attention, the research design often correlational, makes it impossible to determine which way the causal mechanism works.

Further, given the correlational nature of the research, the results cannot resolve whether, as claimed, frequent search engine use can actually “supplant thinking,” or whether individuals who already have a weaker tendency to engage cognitive analytic strategies also tend to use search engines more frequently.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

Since 1900 the availability of the camera has made photography a common practice. But the experience of taking a roll of film to the chemist and waiting a week for the photographs was revolutionised in 1990 with the popularisation of digital photography and again in 1999 with the first camera phone. A mere 20 years ago. My own extensive photograph albums full of holiday pictures and virtually every move my children made from birth, seem to stop around 1999. I have a quirky habit (well I probably have many) of always taking a photograph of every hotel room I stay in. I am also that person you see in multi-story car parks who takes a photograph of the floor number. Both of these are about stimulating my memory. So for me at least, photography is both an art form and an aide memoire.

However, Wilmer et al. present research that suggests otherwise.

Linda Henkel (2013) in the journal Psychological Science “examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them” using the following methodology:

Participants were 28 undergraduates, 1 of whom failed to return for the second session. Of the remaining 27 participants (6 men, 21 women; mean age = 19.41 years, SD = 1.34, range = 18–23), 33% had never been to the museum before, and the remainder reported not having been there in the past month or longer. Individuals participated in return for course credit or extra credit. Participants were told that they would be led on a tour of a museu and that during the tour they would be asked to photograph some objects and to observe other objects without taking a photo; they were asked to pay attention to the objects and told that they would later be asked about what the works of art looked like. They were given time to practice using the digital camera, which had screen viewer that allowed them to see the object the camera was aimed at and the photo that was taken. They were told to be sure to line up the shot carefully by angling the camera horizontally or vertically and zooming in as needed to get the best shot of the whole object.

In the article Linda Henkel describes the way participants were subsequently tested on their recall of object they had photographed. She concludes:

The findings from these two experiments show that photographing objects on a museum tour had a detrimental effect on memory of the objects. When participants took photos of whole objects after viewing them, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations than when they only observed the objects without photographing them…[T]he act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external device of the camera to “remember” for them.

(Henkel, 2013, p. 401)

It is interesting that this contrast with my own experience illustrates very well the way that rather different research paradigms and methodologies in social research pose different research questions adopting different methodologies and come to rather different conclusions. A study by Didem Özkul and Lee Humphreys (2015) takes a rather different approach to many of the experimental clinical quantitative studies, being based on in-depth qualitative interviews with mobile users across two countries – UK and USA.

For the two studies in the UK (London) two different methodologies were used; 27 in-depth interviews and seven focus groups. The project in the US involved recruiting mobile social network users from several metropolitan areas including Boston, New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, among others….in total we conducted 18 semi structured in-depth interviews with the location-based application Foursquare.

(Özkul and Humphreys, 2015, p., 354)

They conclude:


Recent qualitative research provides first-hand accounts that one’s interactions with smartphones and the ‘check-in’ capability of som social media apps as well as photos taken with one’s phone help establish a topographical memory that can both supplant and augment one’s memory of their surroundings and experiences (Özkul and Humphreys, 2015).

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

Whereas Didem Özkul and Lee Humphreys (2015) in the journal Mobile Media and Communication, adopted a naturalistic methodology involving people engaged in normal activity where:

place is shaped by memory and media. As people use mobile media, they engage in place-based meaning-making and memory work. Mobile media offer new and creative ways to record and document the current. Hence, they have the potential to affect how one remembers and exercises the past.

(Özkul and Humphreys, 2015, p., 362)

We will all have our own stories of sat nav system failure. My own includes being dumped in an abandoned ford in St Davids, and being stranded when my iPhone lost its signal in the middle of nowhere, leaving me with no idea where I was.

Another common concern regarding the “offloading” of our semantic memory into a modern technological device regards the impact of GPS mapping systems on our ability to navigate the world. Crafting an accurate cognitive representation of our spatial surroundings is crucial for us to effectively and efficiently get from one place to another. It has been posited that constant reliance on GPS navigation systems, which are now integrated into smartphone devices, interferes with our natural tendency to develop cognitive spatial representations.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

However personal anecdote, while interesting and amusing, is no substitute for systematic research, which Wilmer et al. admit is still lacking, though does flag up questions we might want to ask ourselves.

Research investigating the relationships between smartphone technology habits and one’s memory and knowledge capabilities is still scant, but available findings indicate that, as some have worried, smartphone-related habits can in some cases be detrimental to mnemonic functioning. Though there are some important limitations in the experimental designs that have been discussed, the work conducted to date does give us reason to be cautious about how we use new technologies. The available evidence suggests that when we turn to these devices, we generally learn and remember less from our experiences.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

It is important to bear in mind that this is not a research finding, but a practice-based concern. What might I do to ensure my (or my students’) use of mobile technology is productive and not detrimental.

Delay of Gratification

The focus of interest here is over the way that smartphones with their immediate connectedness might foster a need for “instant” rather than “delayed” gratification. The main finding they claim from the review is:

Specifically, individuals who were heavier users of mobile technology were also more apt to accept a smaller, more immediate reward than to wait for a more substantial but delayed reward.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

Most of the studies in the review are clinical experiments, drawing on self-report data for sources of motivation, though what the instant and delayed rewards are, is not made clear. However, the research is still very sparse and ill-defined.

As with the research highlighted in the previous sections, the data is still too sparse to support firm conclusions regarding the impacts of smartphone use on reward processing and delay of gratification. Lurid claims that smart devices are “rewiring our brains” into being addicted to instant gratification suffer from a lack of any longitudinal evidence, and still very limited empirical support of any kind.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 10)

However, in summary, Wilmer et al. do accept that, as with all correlational studies, the causal mechanism could well work in reverse. The design of the studies they reviewed was unable to identify the direction of the causal mechanism:

Since the results from all of these studies are entirely correlational, they could simply reveal that people who naturally tend toward more immediate gratification and who give in to impulses more easily also tend to use their mobile devices more often (i.e., there may not be a causal relationship from media use to discounting behavior). 

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 9)

Whilst the role of a smartphone in human motivation, might be of importance to experimental psychologists, the application to the school classroom is a little less straightforward or direct. However, the tendency to “reach for the phone“, is possibly very similar emotionally to pupils “reaching for the calculator” to calculate 6×4, something teachers are very proficient at countering.

EVERYDAY cognitive FUNCTIONING.

All of the studies specifically discussed in this section of the review were clinical experimental studies in laboratory (or pseudo-laboratory) conditions ands in some cases it is not possible to identify the independent variable with any validity:

Moreover, the potential implications with respect to cognitive functioning are still limited in that a link between anxiety and cognition was established only via a word-search
puzzle, a task that is somewhat idiosyncratic relative to tasks used more typically in cognitive research. The design also does not allow for determination of whether the effect on word search performance was caused by the absence of the participants’ phones or simply by the distraction of the ring.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 12)

Whereas much of the work reviewed claimed to have found a link between the level of mobile phone use and performance, it is rarely clear that the direction of causality can be fully specified. It also not clear whether the dependent variable is the amount of time spent engaging with a mobile phone, or a particular personality trait which engages with a mobile phone at high or low levels.

This is quite significant because it means if a “high user” reduces their phone usage, it does not follow they will concomitantly change their personality trait and thereby their cognitive functioning. For example, one study by Shao Chiu (2014) claimed that taking a phone away increased levels of anxiety over just turning a phone off.

However, it is also important to bear in mind that the directionality of the effect remains ambiguous, with research also suggesting that life-stress is predictive of mobile device usage, driven by the social support one can attain through using one’s device (Chiu, 2014).

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 12)

Though it should have been pointed out in the discussion (other than just in the references), that this study only related to Taiwanese university students. Whereas much of the work reviewed in this section draws a link between separation from a mobile phone and various emotional and cognitive functions, if a study only looks at removing one artefact (the mobile phone in this case) it is intellectually impossible to isolate the cause of any subsequent reaction.

There is nothing to indicate whether the resultant anxiety is specific to separation from one’s smartphone, or whether the same effect might emerge when participants are separated from something else of subjective value, such as a wallet or personally cherished item.

(Wilmer, Sherman and Chein, 2017, p. 12)

There is much work on the impact of using a mobile phones before sleep, which although important might not be particularly relevant to classroom applications.

What does the Wilner et al. Review tell us?

Whilst I have been quite critical of the approach taken in this review, there is much it can tell us. Although the research is rarely definitive in the way many presume it is, there are a number of issues which we might want to reflect on in our own practice as well as as practitioners (and parents).

First do we have a duty to help young people appreciate and deal with the place of a mobile device in their lives as opposed imposing blanket bans on technology that is fast becoming ubiquitous and embedded.

Does a mobile device on our desk or in our pocket distract us from the need to concentrate. Are we, and especially children, able to prioritise our attention appropriately. When does it really matter? How can we put in place strategies to explicitly deal with conflicting demands on our attention and prioritisation.

How does access to a internet enabled mobile liberate or restrict our learning and awareness. When should we place our trust in a device and what checks and balances can we put in place?

There are no doubt many other questions which individuals can identify, but another area of concern for mobile devices specifically with young people is whether they impact upon “well-being“. Significant research has been undertaken art the Oxford Internet Institute by Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues which I will look at now

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J. Does Digital Technology ACTUALLY Impact Upon Well-being?

With the ever greater penetration of digital technology into our lives, the presence of mobile phones is fast becoming ubiquitous, especially amongst the young, who are often enthusiastic and early adopters of technological innovations. It is not unusual of course for adults, and in particular educational professionals, to see young people as threats to established norms. Take for example, video games. Often seen by adults as obsessive time wasting, but a study by John Beck and Mitchel Wade (2006) claims gamers are “more social, more loyal, more sophisticated decision makers” (p. xii). A study we did in Malaysia suggests there are important lessons to be learned for the mathematics classroom by considering the ways in which young people engage in gaming (Yong, et al. 2016, 2018).

There seem to be two main concerns over the presence of mobile phones within education:

  1. That mobile phones distract pupils from learning and reduce levels of achievement;
  2. That mobile phones damage young people’s feelings of well-being;

I have tried to dispel (1) abover. A further study by Christopher Fergusson suggests “results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors” (Fergusson, 2017, p. 797). So a first conclusion has to be:

There is no compelling evidence that the existence of mobile phones in school reduces levels of achievement.

The second concern is of considerable international importance, fostered no doubt by the images we see around us of people on their phones wherever we go. In dissecting this argument I will draw on some work by experimental psychologists from Oxford University, Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski (Orben and Przybylski, 2019; Orbena, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019) who undertook a large study of data from “an eight-wave, large-scale, and nationally representative panel dataset (Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, 2009–2016)” (Orbena, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 1). This study involved, in total, 12,672 10- to 15-year olds. A podcast of Andrew Przybylski talking about his research on screen time is available on the Rationally Speaking website is available here.

The research question the team examined was:

Does an adolescent using social media more than they do on average drive subsequent changes in life satisfaction?

(Orbena, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 1)

Considerable media attention has been given to a number of studies with journalists and others testifying of the threats to children’s well-being through their use of mobile phones. As a result, there is an unquestioning acceptance of the claim that the use of mobile phones negatively affects young people.

However, there are significant methodological problems in trying to use data to answer this apparently straightforward question. First, much of the analysis compares data on usage by different individuals (the between-person case), and then simplistically applies this to comparisons of changes within individuals themselves (the within-person case). For example, it might look at two individuals, one who self-reports greater use of social media, which is then compared to how the other person would behave if only they used social media less. This produces incoherent analysis.

It is not tenable to assume that observations of between-person associations—comparing different people at the same time point—translate into within person effects—tracking an individual, and what affects them, over time.

(Orbena, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 10226)

The second methodological problem is over this use by most of the research studies of self-report data to estimate mobile phone use and young people’s usage of the internet. Psychological studies have suggested that we are all rather bad at reporting our own past behaviour, so bad in fact, that such data is rarely accurate enough to draw reliable conclusions. Indeed social scientists “have known for a long time that self-reports of behavior cannot be interpreted as accurate representations of what respondents do, but rather as what they believe they do” (Scharkow, 2016, p. 21).

Although media use is in principle an observable behavior, the vast majority of studies in communication research rely on self-report data, mainly because other, more direct measures such as diary or observation data are very costly and/or require much effort from researchers and respondents. Although self-reports of media use and exposure have been the de-facto standard for many decades, they have been criticized for their lack of accuracy and validity for almost as long. The problems with measuring behaviors using self-reports are by no means specific to communication research. Social scientists have noted that for a variety of reasons—social desirability, satisficing, or limited recall ability respondents’ reported behaviors – are far from accurate in many areas: People rarely accurately recall the number of hours they work or exercise and they misreport their voting behaviour.

(Scharkow, 2016, p. 13)

However, much of the research on mobile phone and internet use continues to use this unreliable self-report data.

We also highlight that self-report measures only partially reflect the objective time adolescents spend engaging with social media, yet they form the foundation of technological assessments included in the best quality datasets informing vital research in this area today.

(Orbena, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 10227)

Orben and Przybylski respond to the methodological challenges by rigorously applying a complex analysis to three large-scale social datasets involving 355,358 individuals to examine the evidence for the effects of digital technology on adolescents. In that study, they use very complex analytical techniques rarely seen in this sort of research, to try to compensate for both the systematic and the unsystematic unreliability of self-report data. Their results are not so conclusive and suggest that the data just does not support the claim that mobile phones have a negative impact on young people.

The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being. Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.

(Orben and Przybylski, 2019)

So, a second conclusion has to be:

There is no compelling evidence that the existence of mobile phones in schools impacts negatively on children’s well-being.

Given the technological opportunities offered by these mobile devices, policy initiatives restricting – and even banning – mobile phones would seem to be unfortunate and unnecessary.

99.6% of the variability in adolescent girls’ satisfaction with life had nothing to do with how much they used social media.

(Przybylski and Orben, 2019)

The research reported by Any Orben and Andrew Przybylski (2019), is considerably detailed and highly technical in its explanation of the analysis they undertook.

They are inconsistent, possibly contingent on gender, and vary substantively depending on how the data are analyzed. Most effects are tiny— arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models.

(Orben, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 10228)

What is interesting is their suggestion of what is called the “reciprocal effect” – rooted in the difference between correlation or association and causation. We do not know which way round the causal mechanism plays out, or even if it is consistent:

Some effects are worthy of further exploration and replication: There might be small reciprocal within-person effect in females, with increases in life satisfaction predicting slightly lower social media use, and increases in social media use predicting tenuous decreases in life satisfaction.

(Orben, Dienlin and Przybylski, 2019, p. 10228)

So where are we? Importantly, we need to reflect somewhat upon our preconceived idea that the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones is dangerous; the jury is still well out on that one.

Our finding that the association between technology use and digital engagement is much smaller than previously put forth has extensive implications for stakeholders and policy makers considering monetary investments into decreasing technology use in order to increase adolescent well-being.

(Orben and Przybylski, 2019)

Finally, if we do want to impact up children’s well-being, what ought we to do? Orben and Przybylski have a suggestion.

Simple actions such as getting enough sleep and regularly eating breakfast have much more positive associations with well-being than the average impact of technology use.

(Orben and Przybylski, 2019)

So, if we are indeed concerned about children’s well-being, perhaps we would be better targeting poverty and hunger rather than becoming obsessed with banning a ubiquitous piece of technology (BBC, 2019; Lambie-Mumford and Sims, 2018; Wall, 2019).

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K. Where Are We Now?

This article started off as a blog on Beland and Murphy, but just grew – and in the process threw up a lot of other issues. This is a hugely complex and important area of concern, but one which I feel is being derailed by overreaction. Those working with young people in schools and elsewhere have an enormous responsibility to enable them to grow and learn but at the same to be protected. Teachers need protection too. But I will finish with a small number of key issues of concern.

Cyberbullying

Headlines in the popular press do not paint a pretty picture. Within more academic literature there are also concerns: ‘‘Students are currently experiencing the majority of cyberbullying instances outside of the school day; however there is some impact at school’’ (Agatston, Kowalski, and Limber 2007, p. S59). However, there is a strong counter-argument that mobiles need not pose a serious risk. Tanya Byron, in her report Safer Children in a Digital World (2008, p. 2) writes:


Having considered the evidence I believe we need to move from a discussion about the media ‘causing’ harm to one which focuses on children and young people, what they bring to technology and how we can use our understanding of how they develop to empower them to manage risks and make the digital world safer.

(Byron , 2008, p. 2)

Bullying is an important and unfortunate part of young people’s development, and professionals have various ways of dealing with that. Many of us will have experienced bullying at work or in politics; I have. So it is not confined to children. Yet we do not ban the pen because someone writes a nasty note to someone else.

Cheating

There is much spoken about how access to mobile devices facilitate “cheating” in exams. As someone who is enthusiastic over the power of mobile phones, every sunday I go to my local pub for a pub quiz, where we ban phones – of course. Our team of four has 3 PhDs, 5 MAs 1 MSc, 2 BAs ands 2 BScs and we never win. No one cheats for fear of public recriminations and shame. Yet as soon as our answers are handed in we pull out our phones and find out where our memories or knowledge failed us. Not only do we go every week but we pay for the privilege. It is fun, it is communal, but it isn’t school … or is it? If learning is ostensibly about remembering, retrieving and knowledge, maybe it is just a glorified pub quiz. Once assessment in school becomes more like a pub quiz, maybe we are looking in the wrong direction. If pupils can answer the questions on our assessments using a mobile phone, just maybe we are asking the wrong questions.

The discussion over cheating comes from differing perspectives on what we are teaching and why we are teaching it. Many adults grew up with a behaviourist approach to teaching in the classroom. Learning facts and being able to recall them correctly were paramount. In this respect, mobile technologies can help pupils to cheat. Lisa Nielsen (2008) explains this clearly in her blog ‘‘The Innovative Educator’’. She goes on to discuss how we ‘‘need to begin engaging in ‘know where’ (to find it) rather than ‘know what’ (the answer is) teaching’’ and how this can lead to more meaningful learning. Susan Brooks-Young (2010, p. 28) writes about how teachers can ‘‘redesign activities and testing situations that currently make it all too easy for pupils to cheat’’. Quinn (2012, p. 63-64) reinforces this with a similar approach: ‘‘The issue is the balance between the knowledge that learners need to know and the application of that knowledge to solve problems. It is easy to test the former and typically harder to assess the latter’’.

(Walker, 2013, p4)

What becomes clear in examining the research is the confounding of BYOD situations, where students are permitted to have their own devices with them to use, and situations where personal devices may be banned, but the school provides access to other devices such as an iPad or tablet. This is likely to be a distinction that clouds the debate.

It seems clear that, as with most new innovations that require significant change in outlook as well as a change to social and professional practice, many are fearful and rightly cautious; the ways of the past are rarely sufficient to explore the ways of the future. It happened with the book, the calculator, rock’n’roll, and now the mobile phone.

The present fashion for “evidence-based” and “research-informed” too often results in cherry-picking research that appears to match rather than extend one’s pre-existing views. That helps no one.

I think it appropriate to end with the words of Liz Kolb, who probably has more experience than many of using mobile phones in the classroom:

Many teachers are discovering that a basic cell phone can be the Swiss army knife of digital learning tools. Even if they did not grow up in the digital generation themselves, they have come to accept the mobile phone as a ubiquitous presence in the everyday lives of both elementary and secondary students. I share these educators’ belief that it’s time to stop banning mobile phones and start integrating them into learning.

Kolb, 20210, p. 43

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