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The negative impact of mobile phones: Research around the world

The negative impact of mobile phones: Research around the world

7 min read
  • Phones & technology

What is the negative cost for students for being on their mobile phones too much? With mobile phones increasingly finding a home in the classroom, any teaching and learning policy around them must consider both the potential learning gain as well as the potential learning loss. This blog looks at research from around the world on what the potential downsides are.

Globally, there are 6.378 billion smartphone users around the world today — around 80.69% of the population. Smartphone use can be hard to manage, especially for students, and research shows that there are many reasons to put your phone away. One study even found that students who just study in close proximity of their phone found it much harder to concentrate, even if they weren’t using it. Other research has highlighted how smartphone usage can lead to low sleep quality, increased stress and reduced concentration.

Schools may have three main concerns around mobile phones, which typically are:

  • Impact on grades
  • Impact on well-being
  • Impact on online bullying and other safe-guarding issues

Inspired by a brilliant thread by teacher and author Carl Hendrick, we’ve examined some of the research from around the world to look at the negative impact that mobile phones can have. Here is what these studies have found…

The negative impact of mobile phones around the world

Research from the UK

There are many ways to get better grades, and banning mobile phones in schools may be one of them. One study tracked schools for a number of years about their mobile phone policies in four different English cities: Birmingham, Leicester, London and Manchester. 

They found that introducing a mobile phone ban in schools increased students’ GCSE scores, especially for lower-achieving students. The results suggest that schools could significantly reduce the academic attainment gap across students by implementing a mobile phone ban.

Research from the USA 

In the USA, one study specifically examined the relationship between how much students use their phones in class (be it for social media, texting, searching relevant information online, playing games and/or updating their calendars) and their grades. 

Results of this study show that there was a significant negative association between mobile phone use during class time and the students’ grade point average. This suggests that when students spend a lot of time on their phone in class, their learning and academic achievement may suffer. 

Another study from America found that moderate use of mobile phones (4 hours per day) was also associated with lower psychological well-being. For high users (7+ hours per day), they were more than twice as likely to:

  • Have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety
  • Have been treated by a mental health professional
  • Have taken medication for behavioural issues in the last 12 months

Research from Brazil

Researchers in Brazil tested the relationship between smartphone use and academic performance. They used an app to measure phone use and a survey to measure participants’ personal information, self-efficacy while learning, and phone usage perception. 

Results suggest that there is a significant relationship between a greater total time spent using smartphones and a lower academic performance. They found that for every 100 minutes spent using smartphones, students’ ranking at their school fell by 6.3 points. This effect is twice as high when the smartphone is used during class time instead of during free time or the weekend.

Research from Spain

Research has also looked at the impact of mobile phone uses on academic performance by doing a comparative case study in two regions in Spain, Galicia and Castile-La Mancha. In Spain, autonomous governments of these two regions established mobile phone bans in schools as of 2015. 

The mobile phone ban significantly reduced bullying among students, particularly among those aged between 12 and 17. The phone ban also resulted in an increase in student test scores in Mathematics and Science. 

Another study from Spain found that excessive use of mobile phones was bad for students’ psychological health, with constant over-use being associated with high levels of anxiety, reduced self-esteem and feelings of loneliness.

Don’t let your students’ phone get in the way of their learning and well-being – help them develop key phone management skills.

Research from Norway

Norwegian schools have implemented a wide range of phone policies across schools, including mobile phone bans in some. One study investigated schools across the country about their opinions and policies on mobile phone use at school. They found that schools that supported a mobile phone bad reported significantly less incidents of bullying amongst their students.

Research from Nigeria

Students in Nigeria were surveyed to measure how much time they spent on their phones and their academic achievement. Researchers found that there was a significant correlation between increased phone usage and decreased academic achievement.

In an ideal world, smartphones could be adapted to improve learning, but they must be adapted in a way that makes them tools to help rather than hinder students’ academic achievement.

Research from South Africa

Researchers surveyed and interviewed students, from urban high-density neighbourhoods to remote locations across South Africa. Both teachers and students stated that they used their phones to support their work and learning, but 61% of students believed that there were downsides to phone use in the classroom. These included:

  • Disrupted classes due to mobile phone use – 70% of students claimed that disruptions came from their own or their classmates’ phones, while 90% claimed that disruptions came from teachers using their phones during lesson time.
  • Disruptions in adolescent sleep patterns – 58% of students said that cheaper night-call rates encouraged them to use their phones at night, resulting in less sleep.
  • Wasted time through prolonged sessions on social network sites – 20% of students said that they spent over 2 hours on social networks the last time they used them.
  • Harassment and bullying – 55% of students said that they had experienced unwanted or unpleasant calls or texts.

Research from India

Sleep is vital to maintaining focus, enhancing memory, and improving cognition, but mobile phones may affect its efficacy. Researchers studied the level of mobile phone dependence and sleep quality of university engineering students in India. 

Results showed that there was a significant correlation between mobile phone dependence and sleep quality. Higher levels of mobile phone dependence results in lower sleep quality. Subsequently, this effect can result in increase anxiety and depression in students.

Research from China

In China, researchers looked at prolonged mobile phone use across over 11,000 adolescents. A self-report questionnaire measured mobile phone use in addition to: 

  • Sleep duration 
  • Insomnia 
  • Depression 
  • Academic performance in Mathematics and English 

The research found that students were significantly more likely to report poor academic performance and scored significantly lower on mathematics and English when they used their phones for:

  • More than 2 hours per day on weekdays
  • More than 5 hours per day on weekends 

The findings suggest that adolescents should spend less time using mobile phones to reduce its negative effects on sleep, mental health and academic performance.

Another study in China examined 493 rural Chinese households and assessed the effects of smartphone use on subjective well-being. Smartphone use intensity was associated with lower levels of subjective well-being, including life satisfaction and happiness, especially when smartphone use exceeded 3 hours per day.

Research from Malaysia

The extent to which mobile phones can support student learning is another area of interest for researchers. In Malaysia, one study looked specifically at the effects of using of mobile phone use to support academic learning on students’ compound GPA. 

Students reported that their smartphone use in class included: 

  • Texting friends about class assignments 
  • Downloading and viewing course materials 
  • Looking up word meanings 
  • Taking notes 
  • Referencing materials

Researchers found that the more students used their phones, even if it was to support school learning, the lower their compound GPA.

Research from Australia  

One study measured smartphone use and current GPA of Australian students. A negative relationship was found between smartphone use and their GPA. Interestingly, results also suggested that there was a positive relationship between smartphone use and problematic smartphone use such as: 

  • Driver distraction 
  • Constant phone checking 
  • Sleeping with one’s phone nearby, resulting in cognitive deficits

Final thoughts

So, there you have it: research across the globe from a range of study designs have found that there can be a significant negative impact on students using their mobile phones. These range from hindering academic performance, increasing rates of bullying, decreasing well-being and reducing sleep quantity and quality. 

But we all know that smartphones are not going away anytime soon. The question now remains to see:

  • If the positives outweigh the negatives (and given the range of negatives, one would want to see strong concrete support for a lot of benefits to justify their inclusion in the classroom);
  • If schools choose not to ban phones, then under which conditions do they work best?

We should be under no illusions. There is absolutely a mobile phone addiction crisis sweeping the world. Do we really think students need more screen time when they are at school? That is for each institution to decide themselves.

But that decision shouldn’t be rushed — the research should be consulted and their application greatly considered first.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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