The influence of the smartphone: Part 2

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Smartphones are changing the cultural influences on children’s development. In part two of her six-part series, Dr Stephanie Thornton considers what we know about the influence of smartphones on cognition and concentration

The smartphone and the tablet are extraordinary tools that offer our young all sorts of possibilities that were unimaginable even a few short decades ago. Through this technology every pupil can have access to a wealth of information that only the rare elite libraries of the past could have even begun to offer.

Through this technology learning can be brought alive, made interactive in a way that the “chalk and talk” of the past could not manage. And through this technology learning can be personalised, with educational programmes tailored to the abilities and needs of the individual child.

So seductive are these potential benefits for education that many schools around the world are progressively offering every pupil access to either a smartphone or a tablet. Without doubt, the benefits of this technology are potentially very real.

However: there is increasing public concern that mobile phones (and tablets) have serious detrimental effects on both education and cognition as a whole.

Is this technology dumbing our children down? Shrinking their attention span and their memory capacity, reducing their ability to think?

Susan Greenfield (2013) has suggested that mobile/smartphones are even “rewiring” our children’s brains to require constant instant gratification, which she sees as major threat to the future of society as a whole.

Are they an asset, or a threat to teenage intellect and education? There is no consensus, either nationally or internationally. Some countries have taken a negative view and banned mobile phones in schools. Others promote their use. There is no government policy in the UK.

This lack of consensus reflects the thinness of research on the impact of mobile/smartphones on educational achievement and basic cognition. It is a difficult area to study. For example, when virtually every teenager has a mobile phone, there is no contrasting control group in which to establish what this or that ability would be like in a group of non-phone users.

Of course, we can ask whether teenagers who use their phones a lot differ from those who use them only a little. But use them for what? Would a teenager who spent many hours a day on social media show different effects from one who used it to seek knowledge, for example, or play video games?

Direct measures of who uses his or her phone for what and how much are technically difficult and prohibitively invasive, so research relies on teenagers’ self-report, which has a variety of limitations. The consequence is that current research is less extensive, and lest robust than one might think (Wilmer et al, 2017).

First, is there any evidence to support the claim that mobile/smartphones can be an asset in education? Merely having this technology in the classroom gives no beneficial effect. It is only when the potential of the smartphone is directly incorporated into the curriculum in a well-defined and structured way that benefits are observed (Beland & Murphy, 2016).

Second: is there evidence that mobile phone use has a negative effect on educational attainment? There is. Mobile phones in the classroom are a serious cause of distraction. Whatever teenagers are supposed to be doing with their phones, the temptation to covertly answer/send texts (etc), or surf the net or play games can be overwhelming. Such distraction interrupts on-going reasoning, problem-solving and learning and reduces performance (Wilmer et al, 2017).

In fact, the mere ping of an incoming text can break concentration, even if the recipient does not read it. A phone left visible on the desk, even if it is switched off, even if it belongs to someone else, has been shown to disrupt attention and reduce performance in a task.

A study across schools in the UK (Beland & Murphy, 2016) found that banning mobile phones from school led to a marked improvement in exam results. Interestingly, those who had been least able before the ban showed twice as much improvement as the average pupil. So, used in a structured way, smartphones can be an asset in education. They can also be a major distraction, with a negative effect in the classroom.

But do they damage the development of normal cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, reasoning, as some pundits claim? Here the research is more equivocal: the answer is maybe.

Mobile phones encourage multi-tasking: using the phone while ostensively doing something else, and accepting regular distractions, disruptions. What affect might that have on the ability to develop a focused attention? It’s hard to design empirical research on this issue, but what research we have shows that teenagers who use their phones a lot generally have poorer ability to develop focused concentration on a task than those who use their phones less (Wilmer et al, 2017).

However, this is a correlation. Is the high user’s lack of attentional control caused by their high phone use, or is it that individuals who are more distractible from the start are more likely to be diverted by, and so use their phones more? And then, it seems to depend what they do: playing action video games may actually improve attentional control.

Does smartphone use reduce the ability to reason? There is some research that suggests that it does. For example, teenagers who use their phones a lot tend to have less analytical cognitive styles and poorer knowledge than those who use their phones a little (Barr et al, 2015). But again, there is a chicken-and-egg issue here: does phone use damage analytical and knowledge acquisition skills, or do the less skilled in these areas rely on their phones more?

There is quite strong evidence that mobile phone use has a negative impact on learning and remembering. Research supports our intuitive awareness that relying on navigational apps is associated with poorer abilities to remember routes or to create cognitive maps of new places. Further research shows that we remember less information when we know that we can look things up again on our phones (Sparrow et al, 2011). Even personal experience is affected: we remember less of an outing when we have taken photos on the phone than when we have not (Henkel, 2013).

However, there is as yet little empirical evidence to corroborate Greenfield’s claims that phones are “rewiring” our children’s brains to require constant instant gratification. More prosaically, however, there is evidence that higher smartphone use is associated with poorer levels of the executive processes required to control thinking and reasoning (Cain et al, 2016). Again, the data are correlational: so, chicken or egg?

Practical implications?

The research is very new but expert opinion suggests:

  • Ban mobile phones from the classroom. Merely switching off is not, it seems, enough to stop distraction. All the educational benefits can be had from more controllable computer technology.
  • Should we adjust expectations about the value of remembering information? Some experts suggest that the young now focus on recalling where information is, rather than what it is. Does education need to reconsider just what we actually need the young to commit to memory?
  • However, the ability to concentrate, to analyse, learn and retain information and have executive control of these mental processes is, and always will be vital. The research suggests that the mobile phone can function to substitute or undermine these processes, particularly for the least able. Should we build more explicit exercises to foster these basic skills into the curriculum?
  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. Read her previous articles in SecEd at The third article in this series will publish on June 14.


  • The Brain in Your Pocket: Evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking, Barr, Pennycook, Stolz & Fugelsang, 2015, Computers in Human Behavior.
  • Ill Communication: Technology, distraction and student performance, Beland & Murphy, August 2016, Labour Economics:
  • Media Multitasking in Adolescence, Cain, Leonard, Gabrieli & Finn, 2016, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
  • Screen Technologies, Greenfield, 2013:
  • Point-and-shoot Memories, Henkel, 2013, Psychological Science.
  • Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips, Sparrow, Liu & Wegner, 2011, Science.
  • Smartphones and Cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning, Wilmer, Sherman & Chein, April, 2017, Frontiers in Psychology:


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