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Young person looking at mobile phone with headphones round neck

Should we ban mobile phones in schools?

  • Blog
  • 29th Feb 2024

Evidence informed approaches, rather than blanket bans, may hold the key to reducing the harm of phones in schools.

The UK government has banned mobile phones in schools – or so you would believe from media reports this month. Good news then – pupils will cease using phones, their power to distract will be removed and test scores will rise. The reality is, of course, more nuanced. 

Firstly, this is not a ban but non-statutory guidance. Almost all schools already ban phones, either entirely or for certain portions of the day and have done so for some time, with most using the threat of confiscations and other sanctions to keep phones out of sight. 

Secondly, evidence on the impact of phone bans in schools is mixed. The only substantial UK study, covering 91 schools and using a difference-in-difference method, found positive effects on test scores in schools that banned phones, although effect sizes were small. Other international studies find evidence both supporting and refuting the notion that mobile phone bans improve academic performance. 

This inconsistency may be caused, in part, by the challenges inherent in banning devices that most young people struggle to be apart from, and the variety of approaches schools are taking to address this challenge. And clearly phones can be used in many ways: a recent OECD study found that using digital devices for learning actually increased test scores, whilst leisure use decreased it. While many schools may claim to have mobile-free learning environments, a recent survey found that almost a third of pupils in England use phones in most or all of their lessons in schools where bans are already in place. 

Thirdly: out of sight is not out of mind. A study in Chicago found that not only do mobile phones affect students’ cognitive function, but that ‘phone salience’ (the knowledge that your phone is nearby, even when it is not used) has a significant impact on test performance. Participants with phones located in another room outperformed their peers with phones on desks or in bags by 11% in working memory tasks. This result backs up the use of lockable phone cases by some schools in the UK, US and Australia, which report not only improved academic performance, but also increased socialisation and reductions in conflict. Despite the potential benefits, these approaches involve up-front costs and are resource intensive, so probably wouldn’t appear near the top of most schools’ urgent to-do lists.

Bans in which pupils hold on to phones but receive sanctions if they are used are ultimately easier to implement, but also easier to flout. Another approach is to set appropriate ‘guard rails’, for example leaving phones in lockers during class to avoid impact on cognitive load, but having breaks and sessions during the day where phones can be used unencumbered (this might also be good for wellbeing – one experimental study found that getting notifications at three set points in the day (similar to having regular access times for phones) improved wellbeing relative to constant notifications or no notifications at all). 

This could be co-designed by pupils, teachers and parents, alongside efforts to encourage students to be more intentional about phone use, thereby enabling them to have greater agency in shaping their experience. For example, using tools that support them to manage their time on certain apps, bundling notifications, and encouraging use of apps that support learning.  

Undoubtedly mobile phones are distracting and we need to manage the effects on young people, not least at school. But it is vital that any policy moves are informed by how they distract young people as well as the messy reality of trying to implement blanket bans in the classroom. As ever a balanced approach is likely the right answer. Bringing together pupils, teachers and parents to co-design ‘guard rails’ that support focused learning and students’ desire to connect and unwind seems like the right balance to strike.

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