Are Smart Phones Making Kids Dumber?

“Cell phones can be toxic to a learning environment.” – Teacher in Ontario, Canada, where cell phones are prohibited.

Technology can be a blessing or a curse, and no one knows that better than a typical classroom teacher. Yes, there are cool new apps and websites that allow teachers to have students use their cell phones to take quizzes and check for understanding, but far outweighed by this is the fact that these same devices are causing a huge problem for teachers and administrators across the educational spectrum.

One teacher in the United States recently publicized an experiment she did with her students. They were asked to turn their notifications on and make a tally mark on the board every time a notification sounded. In one class period alone there were more than 1,100 notifications!

A colleague of mine at the college where I teach English recently bemoaned the following in reference to her new dual-credit classes:

“My main problem with the high school population – and I’m talking about my on-campus classes that are heavily populated with dual credit but are not exclusively high schoolers – is the attitudes. I’m not used to having students who stay on their phones the whole time and just ignore me when I say ‘write this down’ and then turn around and gripe about everything.”

In essence, though students now have an incredible and vast source of knowledge in their hands, smart phones actually seem to be making students dumber. Rather than using it as a tool that can supplement their education, they are more often using it in ways that detract from learning. Social media and gaming are two primary ways that smart phones addict their users and demand more and more of their attention, and that diverted attention is having a substantial negative impact on the educational environment.

A 2017 study showed, for example, that students who had access to their cell phones retained less information from a given lecture than those who did not have access. Likewise, a recent study by the Centre For Economic Performance showed that banning cell phone use increased student performance on high-stakes exams. Unfortunately, the negative impact of smart phones is not limited to the classroom.

Our brains have already started to change and evolve as a result of the explosion of smart phone technology. Easy access to Google has actually caused our brains to stop retaining the depth of information which they were capable of storing prior to the proliferation of smart phones. One recent series of studies concluded that we are replacing much of the information we used to retain with a mere understanding of where to go to access that information. The study went so far as to classify this as a form of brain damage!

Smart phones are absolutely amazing; there is no doubt about that. The fact that I can speak to mine and it will answer my questions seems like something out of Star Wars, like I have my own personal droid just waiting for my next request. At the same time, living in a society that has been enslaved by these devices is growing increasingly annoying. People are too busy looking at them to notice the traffic light has turned green; they’re too busy checking them to actually pay attention to movies (and movies have gotten increasingly tedious in compensating for same); and students are too busy taking selfies, checking social media and chatting with friends online to bother paying attention in class.

What’s the solution? The easiest one, the one Canada is deploying, is to simply ban cell phones in schools. Unfortunately, the American education system is far too eager to give in to pressure from parents, many of whom would rail against such action. Never mind that students have been managing just fine in classrooms without smart phones for … well … forever, until about a decade ago.

Teaching has always been one of the most challenging fields of work, and there is little doubt that while smart phones are helpful in some ways, they are also undermining the efforts of educators and perhaps even harming students in the process.

-B

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