Tuesday, October 3, 2023

How Mobile Phone Use Affects School Performance in Kids

High smartphone usage is correlated with poor exam marks. However, new research shows that excess usage actually 'causes' lower academic performance in children.

Most parents vouch that mobile phone use by their kids has worsened their school performance. While that sounds logical, opinions are irrelevant to science. Is there any scientific evidence for or against it? And if there is any decline, how serious is the issue? Let us discuss that in this article.

To start with, such studies are very difficult to perform. How do you define good academic performance? How do you quantify mobile phone use? Should video games be treated differently than chatting with friends on social media, and so on?

Mobile Phone Use and School Performance

  1. In 1965, Dr Gery Becker proposed his theory of the allocation of time. He claimed that time allocated to one activity is the time not allocated to another. When children use mobile phones, that time is not spent studying.
    Counter-argument: Kids don’t study all the time.
  2. An article in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour showed that doing multiple tasks at the same time reduces academic performance. Using smartphones for non-academic purposes while studying is an example of such multitasking.
    Counter-argument: By this token, if kids use mobile phones in their spare time, it should not harm their academics. But it seems to do so.
  3. More recently, multiple studies have found that mobile phone use is associated with poor academic performance.
    Counter-argument: These studies show an association, not causation—they don’t prove that mobile phone use caused poor performance. So we still don’t know what we set out to find.

Observational Studies Can Show Only Correlation

Typically, such studies are observational, or cross–sectional, in nature. That is, the researchers take a bunch of participants, study their mobile phone usage pattern at a given time and correlate it with their most recent exam marks.

The results of such trials can tell you about a correlation—whether A goes hand in hand with B—but, not about causality—whether A is caused by B. For example, another factor C may be causing A as well as B.

Consider ‘discipline’ as factor C. A disciplined student may use smartphones for less time. But his marks may be high because he is disciplined in his studies, not because he uses his smartphone less.

Similarly, a child may lack academic motivation and may be using a mobile phone a lot but its low marks would be because of the former reason.

Longitudinal Studies Can Prove Causation

Finally, what we were looking for:

A recent study from Belgium used the longitudinal study method. In that, the smartphone usage of the same set of students was observed over a period of time and correlated to their exam results along that timeline.

This helps us know how the same student fared in exams for his different amounts of cellphone usage at different times. This removes the ambiguity in observational studies that the variation in academic performance could be because of the student’s abilities.

Researchers studied 1,637 students over three years and found that increased smartphone use reduced academic performance by about seventeen per cent.

They noticed that when the mobile phone was used for non-academic purposes while studying or while attending classes, the fall in academic performance was even worse.

The study could not isolate the reasons why higher smartphone usage leads to lower academic performance. So now we are guessing.

Why Does The Performance Drop With Mobile Phone Use?

There could be multiple causes:


  • Mobile phone use can lower academic performance by as much as seventeen per cent, which is quite high in today’s competitive world.
  • When mobile phones are used in the classroom or during study time for non-academic purposes, the decline is even more.
  • The reasons for the performance drop are not known, but we have guesses.
  • As a parent:
    • Prevent children from excessive use of mobile phones. While it is difficult to prevent the use entirely, do set limits and also educate the child about the harm.
    • Keep an eye on children’s use of mobile phones. If you notice any strange social behaviour patterns such as withdrawal or depression, intervene quickly.
    • Strongly discourage children from using a smartphone while attending classes or during study hours. Discourage carrying mobile phones during such periods, to avoid the temptation.

Finally, there is a possible medical reason to reduce excess mobile use by children: a chance of developing brain cancer. It is not clear whether mobile use can lead to this cancer. But if there is a linkage, it will be more prominent in children because their skulls are thinner, through which more radiation can pass to their brains. Read on this website: Do mobile phones cause cancer?

To Read More

First published on: 22nd January 2020
Image Credit: brgfx on Freepik
Last Updated on: 17th June 2023


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