Smartphones, like nothing else, invented this century, have changed the way we interact with the world and each other. Communication is a breeze, any basic questions of fact can be answered with a search inquiry, and there is an app for every problem. Some might even complain that life is too easy with a smartphone, without also realizing that we still have plenty of problems to contend with even with them.
Today’s students were practically raised on the devices. They are more uncomfortable without them than with even the most complicated of them. There is some divide between older teachers who haven’t adopted the use of technology and younger students, but this is likely to change over time as demographics change and even the most stubborn of teachers are using computers for grading and communications.
Yet what of the impact of all this on students? There are obvious benefits to be sure, but how are students using these devices? Is it all good? What can we expect from the future? These are questions that need to be answered.
And note that while we know that even elementary school students use smartphones we’re mostly going to focus on high school and college students in this piece. We feel the changes are most significant there, and we have much more information and clear responses on those groups.
Here is what we know and can surmise about the impact of smartphones on students, and where we might be headed:
If you open your smartphone now (if it is not open already), you can make a quick search for “online student resources” “scholarly journals” or one of the thousands of search terms and come to databases and journals for any topic you are interested in. Some may be behind a paywall, but plenty of other resources are free.
On top of these journals, there are thousands of dedicated educational sites. And even Wikipedia, while hardly a scholarly resource in and of itself, can provide ground-level information and link out to more reputable sources. A simple Google search can satisfy nearly any question, or at least lead people to the latest research on the topic. And with more advanced search methods that can be learned in a day, a student has access to practically the entire sum of human knowledge up to this point.
All from a smartphone, which can fit in a pocket. And naturally one can do most of this from a computer as well (and it might be recommended in some cases), but there is a benefit to quick answers on a smartphone from time to time. And some students might only be able to access the internet from a smartphone at times, especially if they don’t have a laptop of their own. This makes it an indispensable tool.
And in conjunction with library resources, scholars can access practically any information they want, or ask for permission much more easily than if they would have to go to a place in person or write a letter. This might be more efficiently done on a library or home computer, but the smartphone allows for immediate answers and bookmarking for later.
Not only this, but the smartphones of today can do much more than the smartphones of yesterday. If a student gets a wireless keyboard they can easily work on or edit their term paper for a class. It’s not perfect, but it’s an option that wasn’t open before and wonderful for those moments of inspiration.
On the flip side, while the smartphone is a portal to every answer one would need, it is also a portal to endless distraction and entertainment. One social media site or streaming app would be enough to distract a student 24 hours a day, and this is almost the case with some. Teachers often bemoan the rise of TikTok, and many feel as though they are competing with YouTube videos for a student’s attention in the classroom.
And even when a smartphone isn’t being directly looked at, it can be a source of distraction. We check our phones dozens of times each day, and a single notification can send a student into a spiral of needless messages and checking other apps. It is not especially great for a studying environment, and it can be hard to put a phone away or turn it off.
There is of course a time and place for such things, and the ability to use a smartphone to help a student relax is a great thing. However, there is a balance that must be kept, and students must be able to exercise self-control. Some students are better at this than others. In the worst cases, a student might be distracted from driving while on their phone, which leads to many accidents each year. It is up to parents when students are in high school and students themselves afterward to find the right balance and the best practices.
While we’ll talk about the notetaking and organization capabilities of a smartphone shortly (there’s hardly a limit to them), the simple fact that a smartphone can store heaps of information of practically any kind is a boon to any student. Is there a flyer one wants to hold on to? Just take a picture of it instead of losing it later. Have a date to keep? Not only can one set a reminder, but one can reliably jot down and then check on whatever details are needed.
A student can have their entire textbook on their smartphone (though many would prefer a tablet) and not have to carry it around. If a professor or teacher assigns work digitally, it and related notes can be saved on the smartphone. Conversations and email exchanges can be referenced as needed. Misunderstandings can be much less common with the use of a smartphone.
However, not everything is perfect with this as well, as there are some things best forgotten. The most embarrassing moments or the biggest mistakes of a student’s life, to be lost to time in previous generations, can now be recorded forever, potentially ruining educations and lives. A simple security breach of a smartphone can lead to identity theft and other negative consequences. A smartphone has to be used and cared for responsibly in this respect, and unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. This is not even considering the most malicious actors that would prey on students.
Need to check on the homework? Just call or text a classmate. Forget something or need to double-check something with a fellow student? Just send a message if you’re friends with them. Need to check something more official? Then send an email without issue. Much like the information of the world is at a student’s fingertips, so are all the people of the world. Billions of people are online, and practically every student in the United States is, to at least some degree.
Of course, and unfortunately, there is a darker side to this as well. Cyberbullying has never been easier and it is difficult for students to avoid harassment by peers, even when they are home. What used to be a safe refuge in the home is no longer, as the internet doesn’t really care where you are and what’s on your smartphone doesn’t change just because you’re in an otherwise safe space. It has become extremely problematic in recent years, and it deserves an entirely separate article to discuss it. If you are a parent or teacher, we do encourage you to investigate the matter, if you have not already.
More positively, collaboration has never been easier between classmates. Participants in a group project likely never need to meet in person due to technology, and due to the recent pandemic, that idea has been tested several times over when it comes to online classes and remote learning. Communication is key in testing times, and coordination is still possible despite the many challenges.
While these resources vary vastly between the university and school systems, it often allows for remote library and resource access to papers and necessary materials for anything from a basic paper to a full research project. And the search options within those tools and access portals save students uncountable hours of work. When combined with the expert researchers and librarians that are there to help, or even the resources of the humblest high school library, students can learn and utilize research techniques that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
While the systems will likely change over time, the fundamentals of using a smartphone or computer to improve their scholarship will stay the same. The skills in analyzing sources and information are universally applicable. Technology changes rapidly, but some fundamentals do not.
Access to professors and teachers has also increased with technology. And while this could present an issue of increased workload for teachers and professors, technology has also made their lives easier by some measure, allowing for easier recordkeeping and quick responses (sometimes automated). Questions can be looked up instead of taking up a professor’s time, and teachers can do work wherever they’d like. While this can lead to overwork in many cases, there is a clear benefit for students who have the need and teachers who are willing to put in the time in these instances, as long as the right boundaries are set, and self-care is practiced.
Being able to access other resources and school services via a smartphone might also make those students able to access them for the first time. A school’s writing center that makes remote appointments might be able to not only get more appointments but more tutors by utilizing the internet. A career center for alumni and current students may be able to make remote appointments. Even counseling services can be easier if students are better able to communicate on the phone, or would be otherwise unable to meet in person. This help can change students’ lives for the better at the right time.
And with the recent pandemic, the idea of remote learning has been tested more than ever. Even while most schools are back in-person, remote learning still needs to remain an option for students who catch COVID-19, and for select others who might have extenuating circumstances. There are justifiable concerns for teachers who effectively have to create several lesson plans as a result of this, but in the meanwhile little can be done to alleviate the problem and smartphones are a key component of keeping education going. In some cases, it is all a student has, and while doing work on it can be difficult, it is better than nothing.
And while laptops are generally required for remote learning and to do the work reasonably for online classes (they are sometimes a stated need to stay in a class), smartphones can help students keep up and stay up to date on assignments. They are portals to syllabuses, a way to access documents online, and more. Teachers are still determining how to best teach with them remotely, and as such we have not even begun to see the innovations that will occur. There will be downsides, of course, but the best and brightest educators will hopefully mitigate these effects.
Universities are more used to the idea of remote learning, though online classes were considered inferior in most circumstances to their in-person counterparts, at least by many. Nonetheless, more universities courses are assuming smartphone access on the part of students and play a role in assignments or classes. Apps tailored to university students took off a decade ago, but now universities themselves are considering the mobile market. The student’s learning world is now partially virtual.
What used to take a planner, two notebooks, and maybe a PDA to stay organized can now all be done on a smartphone. A calendar app can do everything for the enterprising student, from scheduling regular club meetings to noting when office hours are open for a professor who has sparse ones. There are dedicated notetaking apps that have features that could be hardly recreated with pen and paper. And when there are a ton of notes, being able to search them can come in handy for a student.
And while there is evidence that taking notes by hand is better for learning than doing so by computer or smartphone (and likely better for paying attention), once that is done digitally storing or reorganizing the notes can be a great help. Some professors may even provide PowerPoint presentation files that students can use instead of having to take their own notes. The diagrams alone might be extremely helpful. While many students might not take advantage of this and suffer academically for it, just being able to organize everything and have it on hand can save students time and energy they can use elsewhere.
Students will have to decide for themselves whether their smartphone is a help or a hindrance when it comes to organization, but the tools are there. How they will be used is yet to be seen.
If you can think of it, then there is an app for it. And if there isn’t an app for it, there is likely someone working on an app for it. If this isn’t the case, then we see a business opportunity in your future. Students quickly learn this as quickly as anyone else.
Much like a search for academic resources, take a quick look in the education and learning section of your app store of choice. What do you see? Plenty of options, for certain. Of course, many of these apps are for grade school children (and this is overall a good thing), but there are learning apps for older students and adults alike, all ranging on topics from math or reading comprehension to language learning.
And while, for example, language learning apps are no substitute for a good course on the matter, such things can work as a great supplement or refresher course when you are looking to. Even a little bit of use over break can prevent regression and keep skills sharp, if not advance them. Some apps are better and more reputable than others, but there are also always new options on the horizon, moving the industry forward one experiment at a time.
And of course, students will find useful apps for more than just learning. With a working smartphone, it is hard to get lost. Students can make payments using their phones in case they are low on cash or lose their wallets. They can check what stores are open in the immediate area for an emergency need. If there’s a need, there’s a solution.
For all their benefits and ills, smartphones are here to stay and they are part of the working world. To deny a student access to one completely would be much like denying a student of a decade or two ago any access to computers. Becoming used to them and proficient with them is a real boon in the workforce that so many students are preparing to enter. Computer courses are common and expected in schools. Whether this will extend to smartphones in the future is yet to be seen, but students are getting an informal education regardless.
Through the use of common apps in the classroom for projects and more, work projects won’t seem so foreign, especially in many white-collar jobs. With the right skill set, a student can learn to do anything, anywhere. If you were a prospective employer, wouldn’t you look for that?
Something that isn’t talked about nearly as often as it should is the financial impact of smartphones on students. A new smartphone can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to just over $1000. This is a heavy burden on a student’s budget, whether in college or in high school. Alternatively, it is a burden on their families who must shoulder the costs. It might not be as expensive as getting a smartphone alone, but it adds to the books, dorm supplies, and more that every student needs to deal with in one way or another.
And cell phone service on top of all this can be a lot as well. It is still at least several hundred dollars a year for even the cheapest of plans. And these plans are hardly sufficient for the needs of some students. And since a smartphone has become a near-necessity (if not an outright one) in the modern world, it is effectively an added utility.
Of course, not everything is financially bad about smartphones. It’s cheaper than the collective alternatives to all they can do. Much money can be saved using a smartphone if you know what to do. There is an up-front cost, though. This leads to a disproportionate impact on lower-income families. Furthermore, it can be a disaster if a smartphone breaks or needs replacing.
Students already have it rough when it comes to sleep habits. Teenagers often naturally have a sleep cycle that is a bit later than school hours would be ideal for. Even until students graduate college, many will hardly be morning people.
And it is well documented that the blue light emitted by phone screens can make people stay up longer. It effectively tricks people’s brains into thinking that it is still daytime. This results in either a disturbed sleep cycle or a lack of sleep. Both are poor for studying and for long-term health. Even an extra hour of sleep each night can be a huge boost for students. Yet it's not just smartphones that are the issue. Practically any screen emitting blue light can be the cause. Students will need to put forth a dedicated effort (either through light filters or cutting out nighttime screen time) to fight these effects.
There might also be other negative issues that smartphones can contribute to. They might contribute to a more sedentary life. This can in turn has negative health effects. They might also encourage unhealthy behaviors as much as they do healthy ones, especially if a student wants to be the next TikTok star and is willing to do something dangerous to get attention.
Conversely, there are plenty of apps reported to help with health, either with the use of other devices or not. It is up to students to utilize them properly, but the resources are there and the information on how to better take care of oneself is there as well. Never before have so many options been available.
While there are clear positives for students, there are also concerns that must be addressed, if not by students and parents then by organizations and app developers. There is a sense that smartphones have taken over the lives of students, often to a far too detrimental degree. People (not just students) go about the world looking at themselves and not looking up at the world around them. There are learning opportunities to be missed in this way. Also, life can be stressful when looked at through a screen. All posts are either a form of hyperbole or leave out the context of what is going on. Self-esteem can be tough when all of one’s peers appear to be having a perfect life and not sharing their struggles. Connections made online often feel followed.
Furthermore, cyberbullying has become a huge issue in recent decades, enabled by smartphones and social media apps that allow for constant access to others. There might not be a cease to it lest the victim removes themselves from technology entirely, which is increasingly difficult in today’s world. And while there might be efforts to combat cyberbullying on a technical level, the underlying causes will likely remain, meaning new methods of cyberbullying will be developed and utilized. This leads to a long cycle.
Related to this, it can be hard to supervise the use of smartphones. Sure, there are apps that parents can use to monitor traffic, but after a certain age, this might do more harm than good. Whether it is in random browsing, chatrooms, or simple communications with other students, students can get into trouble online with their smartphones, and the boundaries can be hard to define. While a smartphone is unlikely to make someone act completely differently, it provides options and opportunities for bad behavior which can derail an education.
And finally, while there is the effect that smartphones can help students communicate easier, there is also an isolating effect of smartphones. Why talk to the students nearby when one can talk to established friends or do things on one's phone? Overuse of smartphones can lead to a sense of social isolation being at college or high school is often meant to counteract. And it can even disconnect students from teachers, professors, and otherwise stable support systems. A school is an environment, and a smartphone might take people out of that environment.
We have always debated how we should use our technology, and whether it is actually good for us. These debates have led to best practices and internal monitoring. As long as these problems persist, we will need to continue the debate.
It seems unlikely that smartphones are ever going to leave students’ sides. They are simply too entrenched in everyday life, too useful, and to some too addicting. And while they can be a bad influence at times, with the right usage they can do far more good than harm.
One clear trend that we can notice is that if smartphones are going to be in the classroom, they must be integrated with traditional learning methods. There is such a thing as too much technology in the classroom, and until we replace our minds with computers there is always ample room for traditional learning methods if aided by technological tools. There will be a back and forth with this for some time. There may be a movement in tech to remove obvious signs of itself from the classroom and life and for a more seamless user experience. We hardly ever complain about email unless it clogs up our life or doesn’t work, in which case we are quick to blame it. We might take an “it's not there until we need it” approach.
Whether this means we are more likely to see more AI implemented in smartphones and learning is yet to be seen. We may see smartphones help those with learning disabilities, clarifying things in real-time much like augmented reality can change the world around us today, limited as it might be. There is a positive future to look forward to if you know where to look and are optimistic.
While we have been talking about students in the abstract, we also need to consider how students feel about the devices themselves. Students, whether in college or high school, are anything but a monolithic group, and should not be treated as such.
Some thoughts we noticed were:
Of course, no student speaks for all students, and in some regards, all we can do is find anecdotes. Furthermore, a mixed reception is all but expected, given their changing nature and multiple uses. And students will not necessarily testify in their best interests.
We could not possibly go over every way smartphones have affected the lives of students at every level, we hope that we’ve given you at least an overview to work with. Smartphones will continue to change, and we suspect that school systems will also continue to integrate technology into the classroom. They might also need to find new ways to restrict usage in the interest of students. What end these measures will have we can only imagine, though there is no turning back on smartphones.
We hope that all this information has been helpful to you, or at least opened your mind to some new ideas about technology in the classroom. The students of today will be the teachers of tomorrow. How they look back on smartphone use will ultimately determine policy in the future. They will be the ultimate judge on smartphone impact, and we hope they make the right calls.