UK: Banning Smartphones at Schools = Higher Test Scores, Less Anxiety, More Exercise
Teachers in the U.K. will soon be prohibiting mobile phone use during the school day. Experts suggest the U.S. should consider doing the same.
By Kevin Mahnken October 11, 2023
The international debate over technology and youth was jolted last week by a surprising announcement: Schools in the United Kingdom will soon ban the use of cell phones.
Issued by the U.K.’s secretary of state for education, the new guidance builds on controls already in place in many schools across the country, most of which take explicit aim at both online bullying and student inattention during lessons. But it may have the further effect of encouraging advocates, both at home and abroad, to pursue further-reaching policies limiting children’s access to tech and social media.
Parents, teachers, and education leaders across the United States have entertained similar proposals in recent years as devices have increasingly become a fixture in students’ daily lives. The near-ubiquity of electronics in American homes (a 2021 study from the nonprofit Common Sense Media showed that 43 percent of children aged 8–12 personally owned a smartphone), as well as their potential links to worsening mental health for young people, moved U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to release an advisory warning against excessive social media use.
Still, it is doubtful whether similar prohibitions can be attempted in the U.S. Unlike in most other Western countries, K–12 education in America is administered at the state and local level, leaving decisions about school management and culture mostly up to district boards. In addition, fears of school shootings and other on-site emergencies mean that some parents want to remain in contact with their kids at all times — even as most research shows that the presence of phones in classrooms tends to harm academic achievement. Among older students, the removal of cell phones during courses is correlated with lower anxiety and higher levels of course understanding, while adolescents engage in more physical play when phones are barred from recess.
Doug Lemov is a well-known educator and expert on classroom practice whose book Teach Like a Champion has become an international bestseller and a highly influential text among both novice and veteran teachers. He has also come out strongly against the use of phones in school, arguing that they meaningfully hamper instruction and prevent children from forming real-world relationships.
Bans such as the one proposed in the United Kingdom might be difficult to enforce, Lemov acknowledged, given kids’ attachment to their devices. But clever methods of evasion are no reason not to seriously contemplate restrictions on phones in schools, he said.
“If a kid feels like he has to sneak off to the bathroom and hide in the stall to use his cell phone, it’s still a win. Because it means that in 99 percent of the places in the building, people are walking around without their cell phones out, they are concentrating in class, and they’re having fully present relationships with one another.”
Effects on academics, exercise
The United Kingdom isn’t the first country to impose restrictions on phones in school. According to a UNESCO report released this summer on education systems in roughly 200 countries, about one-quarter have enacted comparable rules. But some of the most compelling research on the effects of cell phone bans comes from England.
In a study published in 2016, academics Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy found that across the large English cities of Birmingham, Leicester, London, and Manchester, dozens of high schools that instituted bans on mobile phones saw significant improvement in scores on high-stakes tests. The increase was especially large for the lowest-performing pupils, who saw a jump in scores more than twice as large as the average student.
Overall, the authors argued, the greater effects on these students of banning mobile phones — roughly equivalent to adding an hour to each school week — suggested that their higher-achieving classmates were better able to ignore distractions and focus on their work. The lure of texts and apps, therefore, might be expected to increase achievement gaps over time.
Play and exercise are also linked to the use of electronics. A Danish study published in 2021 showed that a four-week ban on phones during recess significantly increased both the frequency and intensity of physical activity of children aged 10–14. And the consequences of a lack of movement can be strongly negative: In a study of nearly 25,000 U.S. teenagers, about 20 percent used screened devices (smartphones, tablets, or video games) more than five hours per day; that group was 43 percent more likely to be obese than participants who experienced less screen time.
While comparatively few studies have been conducted on the impact of information technology on K–12 learning, some have focused on its presence in university settings. One paper, published in 2014, studied cell phone use and texting in a large sample of college students, ultimately finding that they were associated with relatively lower grades and higher levels of self-reported anxiety. Relatedly, subjects who texted and used their phones less experienced higher “satisfaction with life.”
Far beyond its measured influence over grades or test scores, huge public concern has increasingly been directed at the effects of phone and internet use on adolescent mental health. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have pointed to the recent explosion of screen time (generally pegged to the widespread adoption of home internet access and the emergence of smartphones) as a key culprit in rising rates of youth depression and anxiety.
The chorus of critics gained a powerful new voice in May, when Murthy issued his cautionary guidance on the use of social media. While stopping far short of recommending a blanket ban on youth access to apps like Instagram and Snapchat, the document struck a distinctly foreboding note.