Impact of mobile digital devices in schools
This literature review was originally published 21 December 2018.
Many teachers, parents and school communities have been expressing increasing concern over the use of mobile digital devices1 in schools and the impact on student wellbeing (see, for example, Bia 2018; Baluch 2018; Moore 2018). Concerns about mobile digital device use and student wellbeing relate to a variety of issues including cyberbullying, access to inappropriate material, social interaction, and distraction from school work. In May 2018, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg claimed smartphones were distracting students from reading, school-related work, physical activity, and high-quality sleep. He has also speculated that mobile phone-related distraction is the main reason for Australia’s slide down the PISA rankings (Baker 2018).
In June 2018, the NSW Government announced a review of mobile digital device use in NSW schools to address these concerns. The review is looking at the evidence related to the benefits and risks of non-educational mobile digital devices in schools for children and young people; and approaches and practices to support students’ use of such devices in safe, responsible, and informed ways. This paper, which forms part of the review process, explores the evidence behind mobile digital device use in schools, the impacts on student wellbeing, and responses to mobile digital device use in schools.
Use and impact of mobile digital devices on student wellbeing in schools
Student wellbeing can be defined as ‘a sustainable state of positive mood and attitude, resilience and satisfaction with self, relationships and experiences at school’ (Australian Catholic University & Erebus International 2008, p. 5). Mobile digital device use in schools has the potential to disrupt student wellbeing and affect the education of the ‘whole child’. In particular, concerns have been raised by teachers, parents, educators and the media about the impact of non-educational mobile digital device use on interactions between students, cyberbullying, exposure to harmful material, mental and physical health and disruption of school work.
Since the Melbourne Declaration on Education was signed in 2008, the remit of schools has broadened from achievement of academic outcomes, to include education of the ‘whole child’. Ministers collectively declared that:
Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 2008, p.4).
Higher levels of wellbeing at school are associated with positive outcomes, including better educational outcomes (Graziano et al. 2007; Gumora & Arsenio 2002), better mental health (Hayes et al. 2006; Kashdan et al. 2006), and a more pro-social, responsible lifestyle (Sancassiani et al. 2015).
The issue of mobile digital devices in schools is one that continues to receive considerable attention in the media, in schools and among commentators. There is growing concern about the impact that non-educational use of mobile digital devices in schools can have on student wellbeing. The evidence behind the effect of mobile digital devices on student wellbeing in schools is both mixed and limited. There is some evidence that cyberbullying is increasing, but this link cannot be directly attributed to mobile digital device use in school. There is also evidence that phones do distract students from learning, although this evidence largely comes from studies undertaken at the tertiary level. The evidence in terms of sexting points to the fact that teenagers are not sexting as much as other young adults, and that when they do it is often in the context of perceived mutual trust. Some evidence shows that use of mobile digital devices may hinder social interaction which can lead to lower levels of psychological wellbeing, but other research shows that mobile digital device use may enhance important peer and family relationships. The same mix of evidence is found with regard to mental and physical health. In terms of the most effective response to mobile digital devices in schools, the evidence similarly varies. There is some evidence that banning mobile phones may improve academic outcomes for low-achieving students, but other evidence shows that students are adept at ‘getting around’ bans on mobile digital device use in schools. Other researchers state that a ban is not the answer, that students need to be taught ‘digital literacy’ instead, and that mobile digital devices will simply be subsumed within existing school regulations and controls.