Smartphones Should Be Used Responsibly in Schools – or Not at All

It’s estimated that children spend between five and eight hours a day staring at screens, raising concerns about the educational benefits of having smartphones in the classroom. From cyberbullying and deteriorating mental health to poor academic performance, there are many reasons for educators to consider banning smartphones completely.

Whether parents liked having their child glued to a device all day or not, few had a choice during the COVID pandemic. With kids unable to attend school and parents forced to stay at home, remote learning – and increased screen time – became the norm. The strict rules that once governed screen time went out the window.

Even though the threat of COVID has receded, few have returned to strict digital limits for their kids. It’s tricky when many learners are now attending online schools, such as Teneo and Impaq, which have seen their numbers swell in recent years. Additionally, many schools are embracing technology, viewing it as a progressive step for all students to have laptops in class and submit their assignments electronically.

Benefits of Devices in Schools

The use of smart devices in class can provide many benefits, as long as it is done in a controlled manner. For one, online learning is interactive and enjoyable. Apps like Siyavula make learning maths and physical science fun, while Duolingo introduces gamification, making learning a new language feel like playing a video game, complete with rewards and dopamine boosts.

In a country where more than half of disadvantaged schools lack libraries or textbooks and 43% of learners don’t have access to books at home, having tablets or smart devices in the classroom can significantly address the digital divide. Kids can easily look up topics for assignments and gain access to information.

Phones are also a great way for kids to contact their parents when they’re finishing school late or need to be picked up from a different location. Scheduling apps make adding a calendar event simple and can help students organise their time more efficiently.

The Drawbacks of Smartphones in Class – Even When They’re on Silent

Despite these advantages, there are many drawbacks to allowing kids free rein with their smartphones in class. The most obvious is constant distraction. Even when their smartphones are on silent, students are preoccupied with what they’re missing out on – the FOMO effect – keeping them cognitively attached to their devices. The best results, both in academic performance and mental health, are seen when schools ban smartphones entirely, a recent Norwegian study has found.

According to the study, girls especially fared much better after smartphones were banned in schools, reporting a 60% decline in psychological symptoms and a 22% improvement in their maths marks. Socially, both boys and girls benefited from the ban, with fewer instances of cyberbullying and a marked improvement in face-to-face communication.

Another UNESCO study of 14 countries reported similar findings, noting that the mere presence of a smartphone distracted students and negatively impacted learning. The report indicated that one in four schools worldwide has banned smartphones, particularly in Central and Southern Asia, as well as in France, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. In Australia, different states have varying levels of restrictions, from complete bans in primary schools to policies promoting digital safety programmes. In the UK, Spain, and Belgium, schools that have barred smartphones have seen students’ academic performance soar.

Both studies point to the same recommendation, which both parents and educators would do well to heed: technology should be used mindfully within safe limits. Digital literacy training programs in the classroom are crucial and should be part of the standard curriculum. This includes education about privacy and cybersecurity with an emphasis on online risks, protecting personal information, and navigating digital spaces safely. It should also include awareness about the cyber-psychological effects that smartphones have on children’s mental well-being and academic performance and provide coping mechanisms. As with most things in life, technology should be used in moderation and responsibly in the classroom, meaning provided and controlled by the school – or simply not at all.

In light of these findings, a leading girls’ school in the Western Cape is considering implementing a pouch system, which ensures kids’ phones are locked while they are on campus. This school supports their smartphone ban with digital literacy, security awareness, and cyber-wellbeing training.

Words: Anna Collard, SVP Content Strategy & Evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA

Reframed is your trusted source for in-depth insights into the ever-evolving world of technology. We delve into the business and culture of technology and the impact it has on life, culture, society and the way in which we work and communicate.