The influence of the smartphone: Part 1

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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SmartPhones are changing the cultural influences on children’s development. In a new six-part series, Dr Stephanie Thornton considers the implications for education and society

From the discovery of fire or iron through to the innovations of the 21st century, technology has always changed the way humans live, and the way our young develop.

The invention of literacy, for example, fundamentally changed the way we think, laying the foundations for the emergence of more formal and logical thinking (Scribner & Cole, 1981). Television changed how we experience the world, massively extending our horizons. Computers and the internet have changed our lives still more.

The idea that technology can have far-ranging impact is nothing new. But experts believe that no technical innovation has ever had as much potential for changing lifestyles or affecting the way the young develop as the advent of the “smart” mobile phone (Yan, 2017).

Mobile phones are cheap, easily accessible and now ubiquitous across both the developed and developing world. The International Telecommunication Union (2016) estimates that an astonishing 99.7 per cent of the world population now has a mobile phone and 75 per cent have a SmartPhone. The young use their phones extensively, sometimes even compulsively.

So what is the effect of this constant mobile phone use? Much research has addressed specific issues: the impact on learning and cognitive processes, social skills and dynamics, mental health, anti-social behaviour, and physical health – and this research will be reviewed in later articles in this series.

But experts are increasingly aware that mobile phone usage has effects that transcend these specifics (Yan, 2017): over-arching effects that may be profoundly changing very fundamental influences on development.

Yan (2017) argues that mobile phones are “ unparalleled complex developmental phenomenon”.

Multi-functional to an unprecedented extent, they combine the benefits of all previous IT technologies: now we can communicate (speak, text, email, use social media), search the internet for information or news, shop, watch television or film, listen to music, play games, navigate, monitor our health and fitness (and so forth) anywhere, anytime. Moreover, all this capacity is personalised: the individual chooses what to see, hear, do, who to communicate with.

AI algorithms monitor this and tailor the results of our subsequent searches to reflect those personal choices. It is these features that make the mobile phone so compelling, and which are bringing about a fundamental sea-change in the factors that will shape development (Yan, 2017).

Culture is crucial in shaping development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Mead, 1928). Culture specifies the expectations and norms, the skills and behaviours, the attitudes and reactions that are socialised in the young. Historically, the culture we grew up in was the “local” culture: the family, the neighbourhood, the society we lived in, all of which were defined by some level of physical propinquity.

That local culture was, if not uniform (there has always been some degree of cultural diversity, even if only that created by gender, class and generation), then at least fairly coherent, with key expectations and social mores shared by all.

Today, the unprecedented global access that the mobile phone offers means that ideas from cultures far away can be as influential as those from the local culture on the doorstep.

Now “neighbourhood” and peer group can be constructed in social media and online bubbles defined by shared attitude or interest and populated by individuals scattered across the world as easily as by the people across the garden fence or in the same classroom, school or town.

The broader horizons that this offers may bring benefits: ideas from other cultures have always played a useful role in the evolution of human society. But in orienting so firmly to their phones and to the global access that these devices offer, the young are, in a very real sense, loosening their grip on their local culture.

And conversely, that local culture is losing its grip on them: losing some capacity to shape and direct their development in ways “conventional” to that physical locality.

The second effect of the mobile phone is to put teenagers more individually in control of the culture in which they develop than ever before. There is no single global culture “out there” for the young to find. So, in interrogating the world through their mobile phones, the young must pick which themes and ideas, which people and groups they will relate to.

In the process, they are selecting which cultural ideas will influence their development. Of course, adolescent development has always involved some degree of selective personal responsibility (Harter, 1999). But hitherto, this was exercised within a local culture strong enough to offer counter views to the teenager’s experimental ideas.

Today, AI algorithms on the internet progressively foster an adolescent’s early biases, cutting off exposure to the counterfactual challenges that might stimulate critical appraisal of those ideas.

The third effect of the mobile phone is to greatly increase the sheer diversity of cultural influences shaping adolescent development. The personalisation provided by the phone means that two teenagers sitting side-by-side in a classroom (or living in the same family) may be growing up in two entirely different cultures.

Of course, diversity is nothing new: every wave of immigration, from ancient times to today, has brought a fresh burst of diversity. But the diversity created by migrant populations is very different from that created by the mobile phone. Diversity in a local population is generally apparent, allowing the potential for divergent ideas to be evaluated, assimilated, modified, blended.

The personalisation of ideas possible through the mobile phone can create private worlds where the divergence of cultural influences over individuals is not even recognised and still less challenged.

How concerned should we be about these effects of the mobile phone on the culture(s) shaping the development of our young? A priori, the loosening of the power of the local culture, the increasingly solipsist or egocentric choices of cultural influence that the personalisation of the phone fosters, and the diversity that this can generate look worrying. As yet, nobody knows what the consequences of these changes will be. It is simply too soon to tell. No doubt some of these consequences will be good and some bad.

Practical implications?

We need to face these issues as constructively as possible. Expert opinion suggests:

  • Simply ignoring the effects of mobile phones on the cultural influences over development may leave us sleepwalking into a Brave New World, and that is not a wise option. But where is the public debate on these issues? Where is the research, or the funding for research in this area? Teachers are in pole position to demand these things.
  • We can’t go back to yesterday. The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back. And that means that we need to accept that “culture” can no longer be local, in the digital age. The maps of cultural influence on development will have to be redrawn. That requires a major change of mind-set in older generations (anyone over 25), and a change in how we prepare the young for social responsibility and membership of a given community, locality, society.
  • How best to support the young in this new world? As yet, research has little to offer. However, common sense suggests that the obvious way forward is to discuss these issues of culture, locality and society with the young. They are digital natives as older people are not. They are also too young to be aware of the implications that older minds can see. It is time for an urgent debate with the young about all of this.
  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, go to The next article in this series will publish on June 7.


  • Child and Adolescent Use of Mobile Phones: An unparalleled complex developmental phenomenon, Yan, Child Development, May 2017:
  • The Ecology of Human Development Cambridge, Bronfenbrenner, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • The Construction of Self: A developmental perspective, Harter, NY Guildford, 1999.
  • Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead, NY: Morrow, 1928.
  • The Psychology of Literacy, Scribner & Cole, 1981.


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