Please turn off your phone

Researchers Masha Krylova, Rodney Clifton and Gabor Csepregi argue for greater awareness around the negative academic impacts of students’ overusing mobile phones 

March 30, 2019
A level results day

We often hear about the devastating consequences of drivers being distracted by mobile phones. Indeed, using mobile phones while driving is illegal in most countries. Surprisingly little, however, has been said about the negative effects of mobile phones in an educational setting. 

Of course, mobile phone use is not necessarily negative. Students use their phones to access personalised learning sites, timetabling, assignments pending and internet resources such as Wikipedia and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Even so, our recent study, conducted at the University of Manitoba, reveals that mobile phone usage has a remarkably strong and detrimental impact on the final course grades of first-year students. 

The study, in fact, shows that a one standard deviation increase in mobile phone usage, measured in hours per day, results in at least 15 per cent of a standard deviation decrease in students’ grades. 

To put this effect into context, that is nearly the strength of the association between chemotherapy and breast cancer survival rates, or between aspirin usage and a reduction in the risk of having a stroke. 

Moreover, the effect persists even when we control for age, gender and high school grades, which is the strongest predictor of college performance.

While using a phone for one or two hours a day does little harm to students, spending six or more hours on a device leads to negative academic outcomes. 

Arguably, the main problem with mobile phones is that they disrupt students’ concentration and take time away from their studying. But what about the psychological damage that they cause? Can phone overuse result in changes in students’ psychological states, which, in turn, jeopardise their academic success? 

Our research casts some light on this question. It shows that the negative impact of mobile phones on students’ grades is independent of anxiety levels and perceived academic control – a very strong predictor of students’ academic performances. 

But it also shows that, for female students, but not for male students, greater phone use increases their anxiety and impedes their sense of being in control, which subsequently hampers their academic success. Hence, while, for men, mobile phone use is mainly a distraction, for women it also has indirect negative effects — especially if phones are used to access messages about their social relations, attractiveness, and popularity, such as Facebook.

Fortunately, like cigarette smoking, the excessive use of mobile phones can be redressed with appropriate policies. We are moving in the right direction by increasing public awareness of the detrimental consequences of using phones while driving. Likewise, students should be informed about the negative consequences of excessive phone use on their academic performances.

To help, university instructors should limit their students’ use of phones during lectures. Instructors could, for example, begin a class by pulling up a large sign of a mobile phone with a big red X across it.

“No mobile phones, ladies and gentlemen. At least for the next 50 minutes.” 

Masha V. Krylova is a master’s student in psychology working in the Motivation and Academic Achievement laboratory at the University of Manitoba. Rodney A. Clifton is professor emeritus at Manitoba and senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Gabor Csepregi is professor of philosophy at the Université de Saint-Boniface. 

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