Experts at war over danger of smartphones

Idiot box: Would Einstein have proposed the theory of relativity if he had a smartphone?

Have smartphones destroyed a generation? More and more countries are banning them in schools as the evidence against them grows stronger. But a fierce fightback is under way.

What connects Australia, China, France, Greece and Turkmenistan? All of them ban smartphones in schools.

England and Wales may soon join them. This week, the UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson launched a commission to investigate banning phone use in schools. And the subsequent ban could begin as soon as January 2022.

For Williamson, phones in classrooms present a triple threat. They make it difficult to create “a calm and orderly environment” for learning. They “distract from healthy exercise and good old-fashioned play”. And worst of all, they are a “breeding ground for cyberbullying” and other dangerous behaviour.

Williamson is far from the only voice opposed to phones in classrooms. A 2019 poll found 49% of British parents support a ban.

The idea that smartphones interfere with education has some academic heft. A 2015 report from the London School of Economics found that phone bans in schools increase exam grades. A University of Chicago study found the “mere presence” of phones “reduced cognitive capacity”, even when switched off and out of sight.

Beyond worries over reduced outdoor exercise, phones present some real health issues. China’s ban, announced this January, was in part a response to rising childhood nearsightedness.

In a 2017 article for The Atlantic, the demographer Jean M Twenge went so far as to suggest that smartphones have destroyed a whole generation. Twenge parallels an increase in mental health problems among teenagers to growing smartphone use.

“All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness,” she claims. She found that eighth-graders who heavily use social media are more likely to report “symptoms of depression”.

Not everyone agrees. In response to Twenge’s essay, education expert Lisa Guernsey cautioned that though teen happiness has experienced a “slight dip”, it has not changed much from the previous two decades.

Removing phones could even damage some students’ education. The National Deaf Children’s Society’s Mike Hobday says: “what about the thousands of deaf pupils who rely on theirs? I doubt the education secretary has plans to provide an alternative to their speech-to-text apps.”

Some also make a positive argument for the smartphone. Learning about digital technology is often regarded as important. In 2014, the British government mandated computer coding lessons in schools. Smartphones might offer an accessible route to such studies.

Smartphones themselves are a gateway to knowledge. They can contain multiple dictionaries, atlases and encyclopaedias. They can be used to perform quizzes, read articles and use an ever-increasing array of learning apps.

Rather than banning smartphones, some suggest we should work out how to utilise them better in classes. One religious studies teacher in Hertfordshire says: “We need more investment into educating students how to use their phones.” Used correctly, a distraction could become a vital learning aid.

Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Black mirror

Yes, say some. The charge sheet is damning. Smartphones prevent exercise and real-life interaction, distract in the classrooms, reduce attainment, restrict sleep, cause short-sightedness and enable cyberbullying. And perhaps worst of all, they could be the root of a serious mental health crisis among young people. Their use should be restricted to spare the teenagers of the future.

Absolutely not, say others. To say technology has ruined a generation is a huge exaggeration. It would be more honest to say that smartphones have changed the way several generations live and communicate. Like all upheavals, they have good and bad points. Besides, we cannot look at education through a rearview mirror, especially if we aim to prepare people for today’s hyper-connected world.

You Decide

  1. What would you miss most if your phone was taken away from you?
  2. Would you learn more at school if you were never distracted?

Activities

  1. In pairs, draw and write an instruction manual for the most distracting device you can imagine.
  2. In groups, write a travel brochure for a phone-free holiday resort, featuring explanations, illustrations and reviews from visitors.

Some People Say...

“All profound distraction opens certain doors. You have to allow yourself to be distracted when you are unable to concentrate.”

Julio Cortázar (1914 - 1984), Argentinian novelist and short story writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The huge reach of smartphones among the young has been well-documented. According to a Pew Research Centre 2019 study, a median of 76% people in 18 advanced economies possessed smartphones, and 45% in emerging countries. Though there are differences in overall take-up between countries, in all cases younger people are more likely to possess a smartphone. The Pew data found, for instance, that more than nine-in-ten Americans under 34 owned a smartphone, as opposed to 67% of older adults.
What do we not know?
There remains enormous disagreement on whether smartphones enhance or frustrate learning. They give people quick access to an unprecedented storeroom of information. Some argue, however, that knowledge accessed through a smartphone is learnt in a superficial way that prevents us from absorbing what we encounter. As neurologist Dan Kaufer says: “The more we rely on these types of information aids or sources, the less work and processing our brains actually do.”

Word Watch

Commission
When a government launches a commission, they appoint an individual to perform a special piece of work.
Cyberbullying
Harassing or bullying others online, whether through rumours, threats or posting personal information about a victim. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, 19% of children aged 10 to 15 experienced online bullying between March 2019 and 2020.
Nearsightedness
Also known as myopia. Nearsightedness people find it difficult to see far away objects clearly.
Eighth-grader
A class in the American school system spanning ages 13 to 14, the same as Britain's Year 9.
Accessible
According to Statista, 3.80 billion people — 48.33% of the world population — own a smartphone. 4.88 billion, or 62.07%, own a mobile.
Atlases
In Ancient Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned to hold up the globe for eternity as punishment for trying to depose the gods.
Encyclopaedias
The modern word descends from two separate Greek words, enkyklios paideia, general education, which a 15th-Century scribe accidentally copied as a single word.

Subjects

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