Smartphones hurt student learning in the classroom

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun, December 27, 2023
Smartphones hurt student learning in the classroom

No doubt many young Canadians discovered digital devices under the Christmas tree this year. But while smartphones may have a place in your home, new research says it may be wise to unplug them from classrooms.

According to new results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—a standardized test of 15-year-olds in the 38 OECD countries—math and reading scores in Canada have plummeted since 2003. The PISA report also notes that 45 per cent of students in the OECD reported feeling nervous or anxious if their phones were not near them. In Canada, that percentage skyrockets to 80 per cent during math instruction—higher than the OECD average of 65 per cent.

Moreover, 59 per cent of students in the OECD reported being distracted by others using digital devices (phones, laptops and tablets) in math class. These students who report being distracted scored 15 points lower on PISA math tests than those who don’t deal with this distraction. (For context, a 20-point decline in test scores equals roughly one year of learning loss, so a 15-point decline equals three-quarters of a year.) And students who spent five to seven hours per day on their phones scored a whopping 49 points lower on math tests than kids who spent up to one hour per day.

Five to seven hours per day may seem like an unbelievable amount of time for kids to spend scrolling their screens, but according to research by Canadian charity Nature Canada, kids in grades seven to 12 spend up to seven hours per day on screens. Additionally, research from Western University found that screentime is now only slightly below the shocking 13 hours per day that six-year-old to 12-year-old kids spent on screens during COVID lockdowns. And kids who spend hours on smartphones report higher levels of anxiety, depression and aggression—again, excessive screentime hurts not only the kids who are constantly scrolling but their peers as well.

In addition to declining PISA test results, provincial student assessments also show significant declines in student proficiency in numeracy and literacy over the last decade.

So what’s the solution?

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written at length making the case for schools to go phone-free. Without a mature frontal cortex to fight the temptation of buzzing smartphone notifications, kids are particularly at risk of severe distraction—even having a phone in their pocket negatively impacts the academic performance of teens. Feelings of teen loneliness at school have spiked since 2012, Haidt notes, as smartphone and social media addiction have damaged focus and deepened anxiety and irritability.

Others are predictably calling for more money. But in fact, education spending on government-run public schools in Canada has increased in most provinces over the past decade.

Throwing more money at declining test scores won’t help. But freeing Canadian classrooms from the smartphone distraction is one small solution that could make a big difference—and it won’t cost taxpayers a dime.

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