Digital distraction: Are smartphones dumbing down students?

Smartphones are undermining students’ ability to work things out for themselves, says Helen O’Callaghan

THE slipping of a device out of the pocket, the quick glance under the desk — it’s a classroom scenario teachers will shortly return to.

Last May, in the annual survey, 54% of second-level students admitted they’d checked their smartphones behind their teachers’ backs — in schools where smartphones are banned outright or only allowed at break time.

“Smartphones present the biggest challenge to teachers and teaching today,” says teacher and founder Luke Saunders. Some 45% of those surveyed said they were addicted to their phones. A British report found 12-15-year-olds are spending 20 hours a week online. Other research suggests millennial teens are sending about 120 texts a day.

“They all have smartphones,” says Saunders. “Three or four years ago, it was rare to see a first or second year with a smartphone — now it’s rare to find one without one.”

A teacher for 10 years, he says it’s been tough for the profession to accept some of the changes smartphones have wrought on the Irish school dynamic in that decade.

“Where once students might have sat around a table having an engaging conversation at lunch break, now it’s common to have a group of silent children sit with the glare of a phone lighting their faces as they withdraw into online worlds.”

The Sligo-based teacher says on school tours you see how central smartphones are to teen social engagement. “They’ll be having a conversation on the bus that’s led by some content on their phone — someone took a funny video and that’s fuelling the conversation. Whereas 10-15 years ago it might have been memory fuelling a conversation: ‘Do you remember when this happened?’”

A geography teacher, Saunders is quick to cite the positives of internet technology. “Ten years ago, if I was teaching glaciation, I’d show them a diagram. Now, in a 60-second video, I can bring the children to Iceland and to a geologist standing under a glacier.”

The internet, he says, has democratised learning. “No matter where a student is — Belmullet or Dublin 4 — they have access to the same high-quality learning resources.”

Smartphone technology also brings problems — like you’re studying a maths theorem and constantly being interrupted by a stream of incoming phone
communications. “You could be getting a Snapchat message, a Facebook update, a WhatsApp message — and you’re responding.” ( found Snapchat the most used social media platform among second-level students, Instagram was number two, with Facebook slipping to 80% from 88% in 2016).

Students don’t realise how constant interruptions damage study, says Saunders. “They feel they’re achieving highly because they’re managing to study and keep up with their social life, but the quality of the study is hugely impaired by the constant interruption.”

Cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken agrees students often rate themselves for being good at doing several things at once. But, she says, our brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously — we just switch tasks quickly. “So instead of doing one thing well, students may in fact be doing three or four things poorly.”

Research shows our attention span dropped between 2000 and 2017, from twelve seconds down to eight, something that doesn’t surprise UCC professor Tom Butler, a research director at Governance Risk and Compliance Technology Centre. Butler has noticed some students underperforming academically when this wouldn’t have been expected. “Studies have found students who use smartphones can’t write, read, or perform arithmetic as well as students who don’t use smartphones.”

He sees young people getting together with their phones and
texting each other rather than having conversations. “There are reports of decreased ability in university students to express themselves in essays. Something not quite right is going on. These students are intelligent — but something is affecting their ability to express themselves as richly as in a time when they didn’t have a computer in their pocket.”

When students switch attention from what teacher is saying to their device — even if searching for information relevant to the lesson — this is a form of multitasking. And, says Butler, it places a cognitive load on the brain. “This impairs ability to learn effectively. It exhausts the brain.”

Saunders believes many schools haven’t yet decided on a smartphone policy. Though it would solve troublesome classroom access, schools don’t want to be responsible for storing students’ smartphones — which, amassed together, would amount to thousands of euro worth of technology. And students feel they should be contactable by parents. “Many older students in part-time jobs — their boss could be texting to know can they work that evening,” says Saunders.

Moira Leydon, ASTI assistant general secretary in education and research, says smartphones constitute “a problem for discipline that’s becoming more challenging for teachers”. She says even within the one school, teachers’ approaches to student smartphone can vary widely. “One teacher will use smartphones to set homework and communicate with parents — she’ll tell students ‘take your phones out: I want you to Google this’ — while another will prohibit smartphone use in class altogether.”

Early in the school year, Saunders will teach his students
a class on study techniques,
focusing strongly on mobile phone use. “Most schools have no formal education, where they talk with students about smartphone use — yet this technology is huge in teenagers’ lives. The curriculum hasn’t caught up yet.”

Some 60% of survey respondents were worried they use smartphones too much. Saunders finds this encouraging. “It shows they’re aware — it’s a first step.”

When he gets students to compare quality of their study, while being constantly interrupted by their smartphone, with quality of study when they do it in 25-minute blocks with their phone on airplane mode or using a distraction blocker (thereby banishing interruptions), they see how vastly more productive the uninterrupted study session is. “When they see it for themselves, they buy into it.”

When he asks why students feel compelled to check their phone four times in the one class period, they describe feeling anxious about not knowing what’s going on. “They fear they might be missing out on something. Checking the phone isn’t a positive experience — it’s to relieve anxiety of missing out. It sums up what many teens are doing on their phone — just keeping up.”

In the past five years Saunders has seen big changes in young people. “They seem more anxious and self-conscious.”

New York-based psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off , Nancy Colier says today’s teens — especially girls — are having to decide between social isolation and compulsive monitoring of social media. (Girls tend to use social media more for social interaction and celeb-following, while boys use it for gaming). With two children aged six and 14, Colier says the smartphone’s a “gigantic issue in our house”. It’s partly why she wrote her book. “Right now, if you’re [a teen] not monitoring the group chats, you’re effectively out of the entire social scene. More and more kids are turning over their self-esteem to the popularity they can achieve through social media.”

Colier points to some surreal stats: 53% of people would give up their sense of smell over their smartphone, one in three would give up sex before their phone, 50% of people check their phone if they wake during the night. “It’s pretty frightening where we are right now, how out of control our behaviour is around technology.”

Yet, she says, all this communication isn’t creating the connection we crave. “We’re abandoning the present moment — the only place where we can discover the wellbeing, peace, and nourishment that make up a good life.”

As Colier sees it, we’re not directly, solidly experiencing our lives today. “We’re using life to promote an image of ourselves. If we’re walking on a country road, we’re not engaging with being on that road — we’re not feeling the pebbles or the breeze. We’re looking to see where we can take a selfie — it’s ‘look at me! I’m someone who takes country walks’. We feel like ghosts in our lives — we don’t own it in the sense of feeling solid in it.”

And this, she says, is what our children are experiencing too. “They’re becoming hyperfocused. They only know how to be in relationship with something coming in on their phone. They’re chronically bored.”

While Colier knows the internet is “delightful and helpful”, she sees its vast potential to knock kids’ self-esteem. “All this time they spend on smartphones, pre-technology they might have spent it getting good at an activity or sport, which is what really builds a good sense of self. Hard work and effort are two of the leading contenders for what creates a real sense of our own value.”

The IT emphasis on ease and immediacy — Google the answer rather than thinking deeply to find the answer yourself — has us infatuated, says Colier, who believes we’re responding rather than generating and thereby losing our sense of self-reliance. “We’re losing our capacity to process, to stay with a problem and not know what the answer is. Thinking deeply builds a sense of confidence and grit. Instead we YouTube the answer — we forget we can know something through our own experience and experimentation.”

Butler points to studies of the human brain that find attachment to smartphones evokes a similar response to smoking marijuana. Like all addictions, digital technology addiction excludes us from much of life. “Our lives get smaller. We give up interests and real social interaction. It’s harder to find joy and we’re never present — we’re always thinking about getting the next hit,” says Colier.

Teens are hit harder because they don’t have the same bank of richer pre-technology life experiences that adults can draw on.

Colier sees a vital difference between smartphone addiction and other addictions. The former, she says, is missing one of the fundamental aspects that helped break other addictions — with those (such as alcohol addiction), you lost your family or you didn’t have the money to keep it going. Whereas digital technology addiction is socially-condoned. “We’re all in,” says Colier.

Leydon says schools have done well to provide ICT infrastructure. “But we’re behind the times. Society needs to grasp that we need structures to enable us guide our children in the exclusive digital world they occupy.”

Aiken points to Bill Gates’s recent assertion he wouldn’t give a smartphone to a child under 14. She agrees. “It’s important not to confuse the developing of children’s technology skills with internet access — they’re not the same.”

She believes the internet isn’t a suitable environment for children right now — and social media platforms can negatively impact child development. “A recent study named Instagram the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing. [Its use] was associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, and bullying in young people.”

Aiken would like the government to take an important step in limiting young teen use of smartphones — one that would also empower parental control: Set the Irish digital age of consent towards the upper end of the 13-16 spectrum. “Sadly,” she says, “whilst the UK is paying attention to experts in this area and is making unprecedented moves in the area of child protection online, Ireland appears to be moving in the opposite direction.”

The Power of Off, Nancy Colier, €18.19.


Author and psychotherapist Nancy Colier manages smartphone issues with her teen daughter “day by day, argument by argument”. It’s a daily struggle. “Her entire social life goes on on the device —— she’s a very social teen so it’s of utmost urgency she knows everything going on, always. She has a boyfriend she texts with constantly.

“I talk with her about it, keeping lines of communication wide open. I set limits. I explain why it’s so important to be mindful with it. I tolerate the fighting and the push back. I prohibit the phone at meals and for much of family time.

“Every day I set a new intention to save her from the depression, anxiety, and absence of self-esteem that all this use creates.”

For the smartphone-hooked teen, Colier advises:

  • Real conversations about why it’s important to be mindful with smartphones. Explain ‘this can take away your joy in life if you can’t come up with creative things to do’; ‘having to be uber-available all the time can make you anxious’.
  • Nature-based/sporting activities for your teen that don’t require technology, so they can experience/enjoy without it.
  • Don’t allow device to infantilise them. “I know parents who have 20-30 text conversations with their kids every day, sparked by the kid thinking ‘oh, I must ask Mom’. Try not to hold their hand through everything. Turn it over to them.”
  • Be fierce. Avoid surrendering to what’s easiest. Keep big picture in mind of what you want for your child.
  • Set clear rules. Define time allocation (how much, when) for social media access. Put rules up where they can be seen.
  • Model behaviour you’d like to see. Put away your own phone during meals/family visits. Don’t immediately jump to respond to messages.
  • Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield recommends kids’ time online be balanced in the same way parents regulate their diets. She launched a ‘digital five-a-day’ campaign, urging parents rather than switching off wifi to help children use internet time to learn new skills, interact positively with friends and be creative. ; 

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