Smartphones have unintelligent effects on classrooms

Mobile phones have many benefits, but they can also interrupt classes and distract pupils. (KodaKovic/

Mobile phones have many benefits, but they can also interrupt classes and distract pupils. (KodaKovic/

It’s remarkably common for classes to be disrupted by teachers answering their cellphones, a study has found. Schoolchildrens’ phones are also distractions.

  The report, Mobile Phones and Youth in Africa: Ghana, Malawi and South Africa, explores how the rapid expansion of cellphone usage is affecting young lives.

The researchers, funded by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council and department for international development, worked with counterparts in the respective countries and built on research initiated in 2014. Basic phones are most common among younger users but, increasingly, schoolchildren are using smartphones that can connect to the internet.
Although these phones can enable valuable access to information, they are not necessarily used for this purpose.

The survey of children aged nine to 18 years shows that cellphone use is much higher than ownership figures suggest. Ownership of phones was lowest in Malawi, the poorest of the three countries. Here only 8% of children had their own phone, compared with 16% in Ghana and 51% in South Africa.

A few pupils, particularly in South Africa, use their phones to access sites such as Master Maths for help with homework. But positive use of cellphones appears to be limited to mundane tasks such as contacting friends to check homework or using the phone as a calculator.

Class disruption from pupils’ phones used to be mostly from ringtones when calls were received. Now, for those with smartphones, messaging on WhatsApp or checking Facebook have become common classroom activities.

Some teachers admitted that their own use of phones in the classroom can be equally disruptive. A call comes in, or they make a call, and whether they step outside or take the call in class, the end result is that the lesson is interrupted. As more than one teacher said: “You forget what you are going to deliver.”

In Malawi, 60% of schoolchildren said they had seen their teacher using a phone in lesson time. The corresponding figure for Ghana was 66% and for South Africa 88%.

Schoolchildren are rarely given an opportunity to comment on the behaviour of those in authority but, even if not all were truthful, these figures are of concern.

Many principals also spoke about the problem of teachers’ phone use, saying they found it difficult to regulate. Much of the information about cellphone use provided by schoolchildren and teachers is negative: academic performance is affected by disrupted classes and sleep is disrupted because users take advantage of cheap night calls and spend hours on social network sites.

Bullying and harassment are also widely reported. In Ghana 16% of children said they had received unwanted, unpleasant and upsetting calls or texts. This was almost equally true for boys and girls. The corresponding figures in Malawi and South Africa are 28% and 55%.

  Distribution of pornography is widespread, as older boys were willing to disclose. –

The Conversation

  Gina Porter is a senior research fellow at Durham University

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