As responsible parents and grandparents, one of our primary concerns is and ought to be, the welfare of our children and grandchildren. Our kids come first.

In this blog post, we want to write about one of the most pernicious and self-destructive influences on the educational development of our children: the smartphone.

Where Would We Be Without Our Mobile Phones?

It’s a good question in general, but it is being asked with the interests of our children specifically in mind.

The sophistication of modern smartphones – especially the iPhone and its competitors – represents an insidious distraction for many of us, and especially for our children and grandchildren.

True, the iPhone is an important housing mechanism for many important apps, notwithstanding the COVID-19 vaccination passport that increasing numbers of us are obliged to carry. And this writer is certainly thankful for that. But we want to invite you to look at the mobile phone your children and grandchildren carry around from a different perspective.

Human Behaviour & Personal Technology

There is an increasing amount of emerging research on the subject, notably from New Zealand. Back in the early 1970s, a team of researchers embarked on what is now regarded as one of the most intense and consequential investigations into human development ever undertaken.

The group began collecting comprehensive data on more than 1,000 people from birth onward. Known as the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, the information was collected as participants aged and moved through the stages of life.

The findings have formed the basis for innumerable academic papers. And it has precipitated several important insights in the discipline of behavioural science. Specifically, it is becoming increasingly clear that a student’s capacity to block out distractions is central to the achievement of academic success.

Focus Is the New IQ

Focus is increasingly regarded as ‘the new IQ.’ This is the view of Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. He believes that there is a clear need to “teach kids concentration skills as part of the school curriculum, so important is it in the development of young students.”

Picking up on the issue, writer Gary Mason published an article in The Globe and Mail (September 7, 2018) entitled: The time has come to ban cellphones in the classroom.

According to Mr. Mason’s story, which covered the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study in detail:

  1. The researchers tested the students’ ability to pay attention and ignore distractions.
  2. Years later, they compared those results against where the students ended up in their early 30s.
  3. What they discovered was that a child’s self-control, including his or her ability to concentrate, was the strongest predictor of future success – more important, even, than IQ and the socio-economic status of the child’s family.

And what’s the principal source of classroom distraction? You got it: mobile telephones.

A Perennial Classroom Debate

There are people who regard cellphones as a necessary and complementary teaching tool. The education community is, apparently, somewhat divided. Stephen Burns is a long-time math teacher at South Delta Secondary School in Tsawwassen, B.C., and is quoted by Mr. Mason as being strongly in the no-cellphones-in-class camp.

Says Mr. Burns:

If their phone is in sight, it becomes the priority for the majority of kids.

He believes that course material is difficult enough for kids; why make it more so by allowing devices that divert their attention?

Attention Residue Effect

There is a well-documented cognitive condition known as ‘attention residue effect.’ Put another way, research has revealed that switching our attention from one target to another isn’t as simple as it sounds.

When this occurs, there is ‘attention residue’ – meaning we’re still thinking about the previous task even as we start another. Put another way, and as Mr. Mason reports: “If you check your phone for texts or the latest baseball score, even if it’s only for a few seconds, your brain will operate more slowly for up to a half hour afterwards.”

Less Screen Time, More Learning

This shocked us and, if you have school-aged children who use personal technology devices, it should shock you. It means that many Canadian children are working at a fraction of their full ability. If we want our students to do better, it may help to have them limit the use of smartphones – particularly when in the classroom.

In our view, the obsession with cell phone usage is a problem for adults as well. People cross the street while texting. Worse still, they text and drive. This is madness, and it has to stop.

Let’s stop it, beginning with our kids.