Saturday, April 1, 2023

Mobile phone use reduces academic performance in school children

It is well known that high smartphone usage is correlated with poor exam marks. However, for the first time, researchers at Ghent University, Belgium have shown that the excess usage actually 'causes' the lower academic performance in children.

Executive Summary

In a first–ever study done at Ghent University, Belgium, researchers have shown that smartphone use lowers exam marks in school students.

All earlier studies had shown that students who use mobiles do worse in studies. The studies had found an inverse relation between the two. But, none of them could prove that the smartphone use ’caused’ the lower performance. The new study has used a different research method to show that causal relation.

Read this article for discussion about various ways the use of mobiles can affect children, their physical and mental health, as well as their exam marks.


Anecdotally, mobile phone use has been accused of hampering learning in children.

Years before I was born, in 1965, Dr Gery Becker proposed his theory of allocation of time and published it in The Economic Journal. He claimed that time allocated to one activity is the time not allocated to another. So children’s mobile phone usage time is the time not spent studying.

An article in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour showed that doing multiple tasks at the same time reduces academic performance. Use of smartphones while studying is an example of such multi–tasking.

A 2018 study reported that students who most often use their smartphone do the worst on exams.

Various papers have shown that this use of mobile phone for non–academic purposes can be because of:

  • Mobile notifications leading to distractions;
  • FOMO (fear of missing out) behaviour about what is happening online; and
  • Lack of academic motivation.

Also, use of smartphones may also be affecting academic performance because of their effects on children’s health:


All these studies have been observational, or cross–sectional, in nature. That is, the researchers take a bunch of participants at any given time (“cross–section of time–axis”), study their mobile phone usage pattern and correlate it with their most recent exam marks.

The results of such trials can tell you about a correlation—whether A is related to B—but, not about causality—whether A is caused by B.

For example, another factor C might be causing A as well as B. So, we have a correlation—but not a causality—between A and B.

Consider ‘discipline’. It could be that factor C. A disciplined student may use smartphones for lesser time. But his marks may be high because he is disciplined in his studies, not because he uses very little of smartphone.

New Study

The new trial uses the longitudinal study method. In this, the smartphone usage of the same set of students is observed over a period of time and is correlated to their exam results along that timeline.

This helps us know how the same student fared in exams for varying cellphone usage pattern. This removes the ambiguity in cross–sectional studies that the variation in academic performance could be because of abilities of different students involved.

Researchers at Ghent University and the University of Antwerp, both in Belgium, studied 1,637 students. They asked the students their mobile phone usage pattern and noted their exam marks. They tracked many students over 3 years.

The researchers found that increased overall use of smartphones reduced the academic performance by about 17%.

They found when the mobile phone was used while studying or while attending classes, the fall in academic performance was even worse.

Read: Smartphone use and academic performance: First evidence from longitudinal data. Clicking on this link will download a pdf file of the published study.


The study could not isolate the reasons why higher smartphone usage leads to lower academic performance. There are various possible reasons, as mentioned above, but the study was not designed to isolate or identify them.

Finally, there is a strong medical reason to reduce excess mobile use by children. It is still not clear whether mobile use can lead to brain 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?

What you can do

  1. 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.
  2. Keep an eye on children’s use of mobile phone.
    If you notice any strange social behaviour patterns such as withdrawal or depression, intervene quickly.
  3. 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.

First published on: 22nd January, 2020

Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay


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