Beware the risks of smartphones and tablets in schools

I have been saying something similar for years. Now the experts agree!

Article By:  Freelance Opinion writer, Published Toronto Star, on Wed Apr 02 2014

While electronic devices like smartphones and tablets offer many learning benefits, we should be cognizant of the potential downsides.

Beware the risks of smartphones and tablets in schools
Kye R. Lee / MCT file photo

School boards are embracing the use of smartphones and tablets as learning tools for students in class. But Sachin Maharaj says we should be aware of the potential downsides of pervasive electronic use on young people.

After initial reluctance, school systems appear to be rapidly embracing the use of electronic devices in classrooms. In 2010, former premier Dalton McGuinty reversed an earlier position and publicly supported the use of smartphones in schools, touting their ability to be used as learning tools. In 2011, the Toronto District School Board followed suit and overturned its previous ban of devices in classrooms.

Tablets like the iPad, once considered an expensive luxury, are increasingly becoming a must-have learning item. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently decided to spend more than $1 billion to give every one of its students an iPad. Many schools across Canada are now either buying iPads for their students or actively encouraging them to bring their own smartphones and tablets to class.

The momentum appears to be unstoppable. But while electronic devices certainly offer many learning benefits, we should be cognizant of the potential downsides.

First, as many teachers will know from first-hand experience, while these devices can be valuable learning tools, they are often not used that way. Instead of focusing on the lesson or task at hand, many students find the compulsion to use their phones to play Candy Crush or browse Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Instagram et al. much too tempting. This should be no surprise given what we know about impulse control and the developing adolescent brain.

And even when safeguards are put in place to ensure the devices are used for learning, they are often no match for students’ ingenuity. Almost immediately after students in Los Angeles were given their iPads, the tablets were hacked, loaded up with social media apps, and students started accessing unauthorized websites.

Apart from these issues, given how pervasive electronic use is in all of our lives already, should we really be encouraging even more of this in our schools? Canadians with smartphones already spend an average of eight hours per day staring at electronic screens, not including time spent on computers or mobile devices for work. One Stanford University study found that 75 per cent of iPhone users regularly fall asleep with their phones in their bed. Another study found that almost a third of 16- to 25-year-olds check and update their social media accounts while in the middle of using the bathroom.

Perhaps most worrying are the effects that all of this constant technology use can have on students’ cognitive and emotional development. As noted in a recent feature on CBC’s The National, such high amounts of screen time reduce opportunities for quiet reflection, a key to developing empathy for others. This may go some way to explaining the prevalence of cyberbullying among teens.

It is also having an impact on the values our children hold. Whereas teens used to be mostly concerned with fitting in with their social groups, their primary concerns now seem to be acquiring attention and fame. As one Grade 6 Nova Scotia student put it: “I like it when people like my pictures, it makes me feel really good . . . who doesn’t want to be famous?”

Constant electronic use can also carry a significant cognitive cost. Indeed, researchers in Britain found that excessive use of technology reduces people’s intelligence more than twice as much as heavy marijuana use. The incessant barrage of electronic information also makes us less patient. A study by Microsoft and Google found that just a mere 250-millisecond delay in the time it takes to load a web page is enough for most people to abandon it entirely.

Other studies have shown that as our devices and networks get even faster, our impatience only grows. It also seems to be reducing our attention span. Consider the finding that people who read newspapers read for an average of 25 minutes, whereas people who read news online read for an average of 70 seconds.
The implications for our students are profound: it can make them less likely to want to experience things that take long periods of time or that do not provide instant gratification. But learning about and truly appreciating the natural world, as well as the great works of humanity, often require both significant time and patience. It is also what is necessary for students to engage in deep and creative thinking of their own. So while electronic devices may have benefits, perhaps we should rethink embracing them with such open arms in our schools.

Sachin Maharaj holds an MA in educational administration from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and is an assistant curriculum leader in the Toronto District School Board.