Robert Važan

Smartphone bans are based on pseudoscience

My home country, Slovakia, recently joined the growing list of countries banning smartphones in schools. There are many reasons to dislike this policy, but I would like to focus on the central argument supporting the ban. Proponents of the ban claim that research has shown that smartphones damage student performance. As I argue below, this is pseudoscience and no research really shows that smartphones as such are detrimental to education.

Is there any evidence at all?

The most often quoted study is the one by Beland and Murphy (PDF), based on data from UK schools for ages 11-16. Aside from demonstrating only correlation rather than causation and having other flaws that I will explain later, this study shows correlation between smartphone bans and test scores that is only 6% of standard deviation, so essentially next to none. Even this small effect is not reproducible. Research from Norway (PDF) and Sweden (PDF) shows no correlation between smartphone bans and test results. Scarcity of evidence is apparent from Wikipedia article on phone use in schools, which as of April 2024 only references research done with university students even though smartphone bans are mainly implemented in primary and secondary education.

Lies, dirty lies, and statistics

While it is desirable to base decisions on facts, especially facts firmly established by scientific research, it is a grave malpractice to replace deep understanding of the domain with superficial statistics. The correct way to use quantitative research is to first develop a qualitative understanding of the subject matter and then check whether you can use it to explain measured data. What however often happens instead is that people start with raw numbers from research papers, ascribe the most naive interpretation to them, and then directly derive decisions from that by picking whatever option seems to have the better numbers. If you take this shortcut, you disregard all the complex qualitative knowledge you might have and limit yourself to the scarce and often misleading quantitative data. Shallow understanding results in shallow policies that make no sense to anyone who actually understands the matter.

What would such deep domain knowledge look like in the case of smartphone use in schools? Firstly, smartphones are universal computers that can be used for anything. Blaming school performance on smartphones is akin to blaming books, because some students prefer Harry Potter over physics, or blaming paper, because some students doodle instead of paying attention. You have to differentiate between educational uses of smartphones and entertainment, between on-topic and off-topic uses, and between use during classes, during breaks, and outside school. Most research makes no distinctions and just measures mere presence of smartphones or total time on smartphone per week. Since schools usually make no effort to integrate smartphones into classes, research measuring total smartphone use ends up measuring correlation between entertainment and test results, which is predictably negative. The conclusion to draw from such research is however not that smartphones interfere with learning, but rather that schools do not take advantage of available technology, which then ends up being used only for entertainment.

Secondly, smartphones are widely used to enhance productivity. Nobody does long division with pen and paper anymore. Students taught to use calculator apps are better prepared for life, but the same students will also perform worse in pen & paper tests. School tests do not really measure ability. They measure similarity between test content and school content. Any mismatch will harm test performance. This is probably the reason behind U-shaped relationship between educational technology use at school and performance in PISA tests described in paper by Gorjón and Osés (PDF). With small infusion of technology, paper-based learning is more memorable and more engaging and student performance improves even in pen & paper tests. As technology use increases, it competes with paper-based education, which compromises performance in pen & paper tests. Instead of naively claiming that technology overuse harms student performance as authors of the paper do, the correct way to interpret this paper’s results is that test content must evolve together with school content to integrate technology that improves real-life productivity.

Thirdly, smartphones and other technology enable changes in the curriculum. For example, a lot of memorization is unnecessary once you have access to the Internet. But since education systems tend to be very centralized and very bureaucratic, curriculum changes do not happen until smartphone availability grows over certain threshold and remains there for some time. Until then, research shows growing negative effects, because researchers have no way to measure future potential. Instead of ascribing the negative effects to smartphones, the correct interpretation is that student performance is worsening due to education system's resistance to change and consequent inability to operate in the new technological environment. This view motivates policies that encourage changes, for example by giving teachers and students more individual freedom in use of IT tools.

To sum it up, a lot of research that seems to implicate smartphones in declining student performance actually indicates that schools are having trouble with adoption of technology. Schools have to make good use of educational functions of smartphones. Tests must evolve to accommodate technology, so that they don’t penalize progress. Practices among schools, teachers, and even individual students must be allowed to diverge, until smartphones or other similar technology become universally available. Smartphone bans, which go in the opposite direction, are motivated by misunderstanding of how smartphones fit in school environment and by shallow interpretation of the already scarce and inconclusive research. Perhaps in an attempt to look relevant, researchers themselves seem to encourage naive interpretation of their work, which is then quoted everywhere. Even otherwise balanced UNESCO report takes research findings in this area at face value.

Other reasons to oppose smartphone bans

While my focus here is on misinterpretation of research, there are many other reasons to dislike smartphone bans. I will just summarize them briefly below.

So what would I recommend?

I definitely recommend one computer per student, starting from the first grade. Desktop computers and even cheap notebooks are far superior to smartphones and tablets. Smartphones are however a good transitional technology that can be used meantime. There are several ways to deal with cases when some students do not own a smartphone. They can share one with another student, borrow one of the school-provided ones, or just forsake smartphone use and do everything the old-fashioned way. Even once computers are everywhere, smartphones can still find some uses thanks to their portability and high-quality cameras.

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