by Brenée Goforth
Communications Associate, John Locke Foundation
This week, education writer Kristen Blair published a column in Carolina Journal on the effects of smartphones on student cognition. In her piece, Blair references a new study:
This new study from Rutgers scientists Terry Kurtzberg and Kang Sanghoon, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, assessed cognitive costs of media during a break from rigorous work. College students tackled the same challenging task — solving word puzzles — but were randomly assigned to different break conditions. All spent the break compiling a grocery list but some used computers, some used paper, and some used cell phones. Then they returned to word puzzles. A control group went without a break.
What happened? “Participants who took a break on their cell phone took 19 percent longer to do the rest of the task and solved 22 percent fewer problems than did those in the other break conditions combined,” noted Rutgers’ press release. Their brains? Slower. Duller.
Blair notes that those who used computers during the break did not see any cognitive depletion, so it must be something unique about the phone. Blair explains the theories of why our phones are especially distracting:
What could explain phones’ lingering effects? That mechanism isn’t clear; it could be that students are still processing what they saw on the device, says physician and filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston… “We know from science that when devices are put away for the day that grades actually improve in the school setting,” Ruston says.
…It’s addictive, magnetic, researchers write: “This finding supports the developing theory that people are more cognitively and emotionally attached to their phones than they are to other devices, including other electronic tools such as computers.”
What could this mean for schools? Blair says:
As studies accumulate, the message of digital restraint is resonating. Last year, France banned cell phones in schools for students younger than 15. Schools in the U.S. and elsewhere are choosing to move toward more restrictive policies; some require younger students to put phones completely away during school hours, bell to bell.
Is the goal to banish all devices? Of course not; there’s ample evidence supporting the strategic use of digital tools in learning environments. But setting phones aside during the school day could help protect younger students’ concentration and well-being. The big idea behind Ruston’s movement, she says, is to share science and experience with young people, helping them become mindful and engaged themselves.