Smartphones and Mental Wellbeing for Pupils in Schools

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Do mobile phones in school support or hinder pupils’ mental health and academic achievement?

1 in 7 adolescents (age 11-16) in the UK have a diagnosable mental health disorder. At the same time, most adolescents own a smartphone and many use social media …

A study funded by the National Institute for Health Research to be published by the University of Birmingham will compare pupil mental wellbeing in schools that restrict phone use, with schools that permit phone use (e.g. allow phones to be used at breaks and lunchtimes).

Beneficial, but how are they used?

“Evidence suggests that smartphones and social media can be beneficial for mental wellbeing, but the benefits of smartphones and social media depend on how they are used.”

This research aims to establish which types of school phone policies most support pupils’ mental wellbeing.

Parents will be asked participate in a confidential focus group discussion with 4-6 other parents. Questions asked to understand wider contextual factors include the school’s mobile phone policy and opinions on the policy; understanding their child’s smartphone/social media use, attitudes and knowledge of smartphone, plus the presence of technology in the home and house. The pupils’ focus group will follow the same format.

The current conundrum

As far as I can see, there are two or three arguments.

First, many will believe we must teach our young people how to embrace technology. Parents will want to be able to contact their child in an emergency, but few can answer, ‘What did parents do before mobile phones?’

Second, many providers will want their devices to be used in classrooms. This has the potential to make them a fortune!

The third argument is rarely considered; the teacher’s perspective.

A teacher has to safeguard everyone’s child. Alongside a heavy workload, they must provide expensive devices or allow pupils to use their own. The first headache is how do you ensure all pupils are using the right hardware and software? How do you make this equitable? Who provides the device to a child who doesn’t have one? Is broken? Doesn’t know how to use it?

A simple solution is to provide the devices.

Okay, so let’s now consider the reliability of the technology and the behaviour of very young people using powerful tools that only you and I barely know how to use. Who will train all our teachers? How familiar are you with the 2 million apps currently available on iTunes?

What would be your opinion on phones being used in schools by 4, 10 or 16 year olds?

In a tiny primary or a large secondary school? A pupil referral unit or pupils being tutored online?

I’ve not even mentioned bullying, mental health or preparing pupils to be exam-ready. These issues are vast and complex, and there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all.

One thing we can be sure of is the technology is new to us all, and we don’t know very much about the benefits or risks.

School policies, for and against

Whilst this research is underway, I have provided some balance; a sample of school policies and academic papers outlining various views. For clarity, banning/using phones on school premises is a very different argument to banning/using them in classrooms.

One school (of many) that allows mobile phones on-premises but not openly used says: “Children must not use a mobile device, smartwatch or electronic device including headphones anywhere in school during the school day, except under the specific direction of a teacher.” (Reigate School, 2020)

Another school allows mobile phone use in the classroom (with the teacher’s permission, but does not allow using them across the school site: “Mobile phones can be used in the classroom only with the teacher’s permission” (Wimbledon High School, 2022).

Across England, you will be another 22,000 variations used by schools, largely accepting that pupils will have them to hand, but not actively used on-site and/or in classrooms.

Academic research, for and against

MOBILE PHONE BANA research paper, The Effect of Mobile Phone Ban in Schools on the Evaluation of Classroom Climate (Cakirpaloglu et al., 2020), suggests:

… that primary school classes where pupils are allowed to use mobile phones have a higher degree of conflict between pupils, lower pupil satisfaction in the classroom, and higher competition compared with primary school classes where pupils are not allowed to use their phones.

However, in high schools with a ban on mobile phones, compared with those where the use of mobile phones is allowed, students “have a greater ability to better resolve conflicts.”

Looking more widely, Hattie’s Visible Learning database, which covers systematic reviews and meta-analyses of published research, draws upon millions of studies, schools and pupils.

Drawing on a sample of 148,883 pupils, 39 studies and defined by ‘the presence of mobile phones in class (typically not related to the teaching and learning)’. The literature suggests …

Banning mobile phones from classroomsAnother paper evaluates an emerging worldwide trend for mobile phones to be banned from classrooms.

The research suggests a “curtailment of digital education” or “consequences that are neurological, psychological, social ….” (Selwyn + Aagaard, 2021) and “working together to engage with the “messy realities.”

Closer to home, Dr Carl Hendrick offers a growing body of evidence to show that mobile phone use is linked with lower academic achievement. Meanwhile, the University of Birmingham research proposal suggests …

I will update this link as soon as this research is published.

… that smartphones and social media can be beneficial for mental wellbeing, but the benefits of phone/media for mental wellbeing depends on how they are used.

5 thoughts on “Smartphones and Mental Wellbeing for Pupils in Schools

  1. What an interesting avenue of research! Phone usage has always been linked to mental health and wellbeing, but often negatively so. It will be incredibly to see the results of a recent piece of research and if there is now a new link of positivity!

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