Smartphones in Schools: Weighing the Pros and Cons

Monday, October 23, 2023

Smartphones are not just devices for communication; they're powerful tools that can open up a world of information and possibilities. This has sparked a very hot debate about the role of phones in schools, a topic that Sonia Livingstone has explored in depth. I love Sonia's research and in-depth look at all things digital for our tweens and teens. It's so important to have a balanced approach to research, and to read BOTH books, which I really feel she does. That's what I was always told growing up...read both books, meaning you need to hear both sides, gain a comprehensive and unbiased view, and come to rational conclusions. Too often, the negative is the loudest one in the room, as we rarely stop to hear from the positive. This post is looking at some of the research Sonia has shared.

The Pros: Enhancing Learning

Sonia's research, in collaboration with a youth panel (yes, we should be hearing from them!), highlights several benefits of allowing mobile phones in schools:

Access to Information: Smartphones connect students to a wealth of knowledge. Instant access to the internet expands their understanding of various subjects. (Can this happen with laptops and tablets as well, yes, but are the demographics the same everywhere? No.)

Educational Apps: Many educational apps can turn a smartphone into a valuable learning tool. From language apps to interactive science resources, these apps make learning engaging and fun. (Taking VR tours of places around the world, accessing cameras and scanners to document work for portfolios...things you can't do with a bulky laptop, or no devices at all.)

Preparation for the Future: We live in a digital world, and smartphones are a part of that reality. Allowing students to use their phones in controlled settings can help them develop digital literacy and prepare for the tech-driven future. (You know me...I'm all for preparing our students with media literacy skills...but PLEASE schools, start developing media literacy curriculum from early on! And educate both parents and students consistently.)

Digital Inclusion: Mobile phones are essential for digital inclusion and equality. While some students have access to tablets and laptops, others rely on their mobile phones for schoolwork. (Yes, some don't have access at all, which causes a divide and certainly takes away from equal access to information for all. But for those who can get their hands on a device...)

As a teacher who worked in an International school of 3,000 students, I saw a lot of benefits for devices in schools. However, that's because they were provided as part of the tuition and the school controlled them, along with implementing a full fledged device management and behavior program. We had tiered behavior responses to various incidents and a lot of education. Did things happen, yes. Would I ever take devices out of school? No. Do I feel my own children were well prepared and given amazing opportunities due to tech in their education? Absolutely.

Now, when it comes to personal smartphones in schools, those weren't' allowed until the upper middle and high school levels. Younger students weren't allowed to have them, and I feel that is the best choice, as there was no need during school hours since they already had school devices. Because they were iPads, they had the camera, apps and ease of portability. In the upper grades, the smartphones were awesome for being able to capture group work, take photos of projects or scan physical work to turn in, etc. I mean, its not practical to do all that with a school issued laptop. Phones were also a way for them to decompress during breaks by listening to music.

Was there misuse at times? Yes. Were there learning opportunities and follow through? Yes. Are we going to capture every single thing done wrong? No. We can't police it all, but seeing the positives and providing a lot of education on digital literacy is better than nothing.

The Cons: Distraction and Well-being Concerns

Sonia's research also acknowledges concerns related to mobile phone use in schools (because we're not saying there aren't concerns, remember, read both books):

Distraction: One of the most significant concerns about phones in schools is their potential to distract students. Social media, games, and messaging apps can divert attention away from lessons. (This is where policies and plans should be put into place in schools for follow through, such as phones aren't allowed to be kept on desks. Period.)

Cyberbullying: While phones can be used for learning, they also open up opportunities for negative behaviors like cyberbullying. Schools must address these concerns and provide students with the skills to navigate the digital world safely. (Behavior management plans and follow through are key. And parents need to be educated about these policies as well.)

Mental Health: The increasing use of smartphones has raised questions about their impact on students' mental health. Excessive screen time can contribute to anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other well-being issues. (This is why I'm a firm believer in educating our youth about digital wellness from early on.)

Balancing Act: Safety, Learning, and Well-being

Sonia Livingstone's research underlines the need for a balanced approach. Instead of an outright ban or unrestricted access, schools should consider a middle ground. Establishing clear policies on when and how phones can be used can help harness the benefits of technology while minimizing its drawbacks. Policies and education that take into account the world we're living in is a practical approach these days. You need to look at the WHOLE picture, read both books. What are the demographics of the school and it's pupils? Financial status when it comes to school issued or BYOD or unable to provide at all? What are the internal resources available in the school when it comes to parent and student education, behavior plans, ability to monitor by the IT department, etc.

What the Youth Panel Says

Sonia's research includes the perspectives of young people themselves. While they acknowledge situations where electronic devices can be disruptive or harmful, they also emphasize the positive role mobile phones play in active learning and participation (key phrases BTW! Not just having a phone to do whatever). The panel sees mobile phones as essential tools, especially for those who might not have access to laptops or tablets.

Lack of Clear Evidence for a Ban

Sonia's research underscores that there is currently insufficient evidence to support a widespread ban on mobile phones in schools. The effects of such a ban on various outcomes like academic performance, pupil behavior, and well-being should be carefully considered and weighed against the potential benefits.

In conclusion, Sonia Livingstone's research provides a balanced perspective on the use of smartphones in schools. It highlights the need for a nuanced approach that considers both the advantages and challenges, ultimately seeking to create a learning environment that benefits students while ensuring their well-being and safety. "It is important to consult children and young people themselves on matters that affect them."


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