By Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Co-Lead on the DIORA project, part of the Digital Youth Programme.
The UK Government’s Education Committee recently called for evidence on “how screen time can support and impact children’s development, wellbeing, and educational outcomes” in order to understand “the effectiveness of digital safety education in schools and the ways in which schools and parents can be better supported to manage children’s screen usage” as well as “how screen use for academic purposes is being managed in schools.”
Coincidentally, the Prime Minister announced a mobile phone ban in UK schools, apparently on the grounds that they distract students from learning and facilitate cyberbullying. This was unexpected, and the relation between the proposed ban and the formal call for evidence has not been made clear.
Since Digital Youth with Sprouting Minds is in the middle of its examination of the complex risks and opportunities for mental health associated with young people’s engagement with the digital world, we thought we should respond.
We consulted researchers across the network, talked specifically to the youth panel of the DIORA project, and sought out the latest evidence available, including on mobile phone bans in schools. It should be noted that there is a lot of evidence relevant to this inquiry, though the window of opportunity to respond was very short, and only 3000 words were expected.
Our response made four key points:
1. Screen time is an unhelpful term that obscures and confuses public policy; it is vital to differentiate online risks and also recognise online opportunities.
We documented why the growing consensus among the experts (academic, professional, practitioner) is that “screen time” is an unhelpful term that conflates positive opportunities and risky/negative online experiences and cannot be measured reliably. Most importantly, it does not usefully predict children’s wellbeing or other significant outcomes.
2. Mobile phone bans in schools are unlikely to improve educational outcomes.
We drew attention to high quality research findings regarding educational outcomes potentially linked to screen time, and summarise recent evidence that largely shows that such a ban would likely be ineffective. We also document the nuanced and largely negative views of the youth panel regarding a mobile phone ban – for multiple reasons about which they were eloquent.
3. Social media and other screen-based activities bring both benefits and risk of harm to children’s wellbeing and mental health.
We provide evidence relating to the question of the current understanding of how screen time can support or impact children’s wellbeing and mental health, including the use of social media – this is a fast-moving area and we will be reporting new evidence from Digital Youth soon.
We hope these points are informative. Some readers may be interested in the detail – you can find this set out below. We look forward to learning of the Government’s decisions in this domain. As our research and consultation shows, young people care greatly about their access to digital and mobile technology, and they want it to be made fulfilling and also safe. But they are also encountering bigger and more intractable problems in their lives which deserve government and societal attention – and digital technology cannot provide a silver bullet solution.
Please find our full response, submitted to the UK government on 16th October 2023 below:
Screen Time: Impacts on education and wellbeing
About Digital Youth
Digital Youth is an interdisciplinary and multi-institutional programme of eight linked research projects, co-produced and co-designed with a young person’s advisory group Sprouting Minds. Led by Professors Chris Hollis and Ellen Townsend at the University of Nottingham, it began in September 2021 with £4m funding as part of the UKRI’s £24m Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind programme.
Digital Youth examines the complex risks and opportunities for mental health associated with young people’s engagement with the digital world, using rigorous social science theory and methods, with the aim of generating new preventative and therapeutic interventions.
Our response to the consultation
Noting the Education Committee’s Terms of reference for the consultation, Digital Youth researchers are pleased to contribute evidence as invited:
1. We begin by documenting why the growing consensus among the experts (academic, professional, practitioner) is that “screen time” is an unhelpful term that conflates positive opportunities and risky/negative online experiences and cannot be measured reliably. Most importantly, it does not usefully predict children’s wellbeing or other significant outcomes.
2. We also draw attention to high quality research findings regarding educational outcomes potentially linked to screen time. Noting that the Call for Evidence was published just before the Prime Minister announced a ban on mobile phones in UK schools, we summarise recent evidence that largely shows that such a ban would likely be ineffective.
3. We provide evidence relating to the question of the current understanding of how screen time can support or impact children’s wellbeing and mental health, including the use of social media.
4. Finally, we offer some evidence-based recommendations to the UK Government.
1. Screen time is an unhelpful term that obscures and confuses public policy; it is vital to differentiate online risks and also recognise online opportunities
There is considerable academic evidence that “screen time” is difficult both to define and measure (Livingstone, 2021). As many have observed, evidence claimed to demonstrate a causal link between more screen time and worse wellbeing (or other) outcomes is highly problematic (e.g., Kucirkova et al., 2023; Dickson et al, 2018). Notably, most findings are correlational and cannot support causal claims; effects are weak or absent; studies contradict each other; conclusions are contested; contexts matter; and the exclusive focus on harms linked to screen time neglects the positives of using digital technologies, risking in an unbalanced account (Ferguson et al., 2021; Livingstone, 2018), . There have been several serious prior evidence reviews on children and “screen time” whose findings and recommendations still merit attention:
The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications: Inquiry into Children and the Internet (2017) cited multiple sources of evidence regarding child development and wellbeing in a digital age. Recognising that digital technologies bring both opportunities and risks that are obscured by a reductive emphasis on overall screen time, the report made multiple valuable policy proposals, most of which await implementation.
In January 2019, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a systematic review of reviews in the British Medical Journal by Neza Stiglic and Russell Viner which concluded, notwithstanding a series of concerns, that “evidence to guide policy on safe CYP [children and young people] screentime exposure is limited.”
Internationally, and with clear applicability to the UK, the OECD Recommendation, Children in the digital environment (2021) distinguishes different sources of online opportunity and risk and calls for tailored responses to each, again refusing the generic category of screen time and instead calling for government action to maximise online opportunities and minimise online risk of harm.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment no. 25 (2021) sets out multiple, practical, evidence based and often urgent actions that states should undertake to respect, protect and fulfil children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. We commend these to the government.
Our recent systematic evidence review regarding the digital experiences and their impact on the lives of adolescents with pre-existing anxiety, depression, eating and nonsuicidal self-injury conditions (Kostyrka-Allchorne, et al., 2022), we concluded that “Digital practices of adolescents with pre-existing clinical vulnerabilities are complex and encompass a range of positive and negative experiences … [and] the literature is currently too limited to identify disorder-specific practices.”
In short, it is difficult if not impossible to find clear evidence that “screen time” per se is linked solely to negative outcomes for children. This is not to say that use of technologies has no adverse consequences. Indeed, it may have both positive and negative outcomes. For example, Susi et al. (2023) reviewed available evidence on exposure to self-harm online and found that:
“Of the 15 identified studies, all found harmful effects of viewing self-harm-related images online. These included escalation of self-harm, reinforcement of engagement behaviours (e.g., commenting and sharing images), encouragement of social comparison (comparing own self-harm with others), development of a self-harm identity, social connection perpetuating or escalating self-harm, and emotional, cognitive, and physiological impacts triggering self-harm urges and acts. Nine studies found protective effects, including self-harm mitigation or reduction, promotion of self-harm recovery, encouraging social connection and help-giving, and emotional, cognitive and physiological impacts mitigating or reducing self-harm urges and acts. Causality of impact was not determined in any study.”
We could cite many more studies and reviews that find both benefits and harms linked to social media. Policy interventions are urgently needed to address both the benefits and harms – the Online Safety Bill represents one positive means of addressing the harms. But, as painfully illustrated by the present challenge of supporting students who are seeing uncensored and potentially traumatic social media images in relation to Gaza and Israel, a raft of policy, technical/regulatory and educational strategies are urgently required.
Importantly, the evidence also often shows that outcomes vary according to the nature and purpose of use of different technologies by different children in different life contexts or situations (see Stoilova et al, 2021). This is especially the case for children and young people experiencing mental health difficulties and/or measurably “problematic” internet or social media use; and these can be the same children, and the causes are often complex and deep-seated. For them, who are most in need of support in their digital lives, and also for the wider population, simple bans or restrictions on use of digital technologies are likely to miss the point.
2. Mobile phone bans in school are unlikely to improve educational outcomes
It is important to consult children and young people themselves on matters that affect them. In partnership with a panel of young people aged 13 – 17, the DIORA research group within Digital Youth is investigating how digital activity (including smartphone use) affects the mental wellbeing of young people. In response to the government inquiry about the impacts of screen time on education, the youth panel was consulted in September 2023.
The panel described situations in which electronic devices cause disruption, distraction, and potential harm – for example, a student being recorded without giving consent. But there was disagreement about the negative effects of mobile phones in schools, suggesting these vary considerably by subject, school, and school year.
“The reason they might want to ban [mobile phones] is because people record stuff in schools… you’re with your friends and you wanna hang out and make memories [but] people don’t want their faces in other people’s cameras” – Girl, 15.
“We don’t get to use our phones throughout the day. We only get it going into school, which most people just use to connect to headphones and listen to music. During the day it’s switched off in our blazers, and no one really uses it.” – Boy, 13.
The panel valued how mobile phones are used in school to increase active learning and participation – for example, reminding students of tasks to be completed, accessing resources and videos relevant to their classwork, taking part in quizzes, and contributing class discussions and mind maps.
Mobile phones were considered important for digital inclusion and equality since although some students can afford tablets and laptops to help them with schoolwork and homework, other students must rely on their mobile phones.
“[My school] understands that phones are actually a really useful thing [for classroom and homework] because obviously not everyone can afford a phone and a laptop, so a phone being useful for schoolwork, you can have that for everything – including calls” – Girl, 15.
“[On laptops] there is a system so that [the teacher] can track and see what everyone is looking at. That stopped people using their phones, I guess, and we can use those [laptops] to do our work on” – Boy, 13.
The panel was concerned that any ban on mobile phones in schools could undermine their safety during the school day, including disconnection from emergency contacts and services during the sometimes-lengthy commute to school, especially on public transport. Also, students increasingly use their phones to pay (e.g., via Apple/Google Pay) for their commute and food during the school day.
“[Mobile phones do] not just affect being in school, say when you’re getting to school or getting home from school, if there is an emergency and you need to call someone. You need apps, train tickets are on apps or if you need a bit of money, you go on to Google Pay… If something happens, or there’s a danger or something, you can communicate with your parent.” – Boy, 13.
“I get the bus and it’s about 40 minutes and I need to tell my parents that I’m on the bus and that’s a really important thing. I just think it’s very important that you can at least take [mobile phones] to school, mostly just for safety.” – Girl, 15.
The panel also believed banning of mobile phones in schools to be unenforceable, and they could worsen tensions between teachers and students. Students have too many places on their person to hide their mobile phone – for example in bags and blazers jackets, and teachers cannot forcibly search these items or remove the phone from the student’s possession.
“I think it will be much harder to enforce [a ban on mobile phones in schools] than what people are saying. In blazers there’s lots of pockets and things like that.” – Boy, 13.
“It’s really, really hard to enforce not letting people be on their phones… You can just be looking at it while it is in your bag and your bag’s open and stuff. Although it might not be the best for your brain or whatever, I don’t think it can be enforced well and it might just be more stressful to have [a ban on mobile phones in schools] enforced so strictly.” – Girl, 15.
Finally, they cited existing measures that schools use to mitigate any negative effects of mobile phones in schools – such as limiting what is accessible through their school’s Wi-Fi and temporary confiscation of their phone for repeated unauthorised usage in class. The panel believe existing measures are sufficient without exposing them to the risks of being unable to access emergency contacts or money or denying them the potential benefits that authorised mobile phone use can bring to their academic development.
“[If you are caught using your phone at school], it gets taken from you at the end of the day, and if that happens three times you get a detention].” – Boy, 13
“You can get Wi-Fi from the school but then they limit what the Wi-Fi will actually allow. So, it won’t load for your social media or anything like that, you can only use your electronics for schoolwork.” – Girl, 15
Research findings on mobile bans at school:
Much of the public debate has focused on the potential negative consequences of students having access to phones during school hours, for example, distraction, academic cheating, and inappropriate behaviour including cyberbullying (Ott, 2017). In response to this dominating narrative and despite the clear value of mobile phones as pedagogical tools, some national governments either have introduced legislation that bans the use of mobile phones by students during school hours (e.g., France, Israel, Australia) or have been considering doing so (e.g., Sweden, United Kingdom). Individual schools have also introduced their own mobile phone bans.
The very few studies that systematically evaluated the effects of such bans produced inconsistent results. Beland and Murphy (2016) provided evidence that a ban could be a low-cost and effective intervention to improve English students’ exam performance, and these effects were driven by those who were previously the lowest achieving. However, a replication study in the Swedish setting failed to demonstrate the same positive impact (Kessel et al., 2020).
Neither teachers nor students consider bans to be effective and some students may deliberately use phones when banned to defy the school’s authority (Ott et al., 2018). One Swedish secondary school which introduced a blanket ban on mobile phones found that this action had unfavourable pedagogical consequences, and replaced the ban with a more flexible approach allowing a respectful use of mobiles in the classroom.
Research on the academic benefits of mobile phones at school:
A growing body of educational technology research provides robust evidence of their versatile pedagogical functionality in teaching and learning”
Students’ own mobile phones are clearly a very useful, if not essential, classroom tool. For example, excellent connectivity (both via the Internet and Bluetooth) allows the students to easily complete tasks such as checking school emails, transferring files between school and home or between the study group members and accessing learning and revision sites on the Internet (Hartnell-Young & Heym, 2008).
Further, mobile phones have great potential to support learning in science and art subjects. For example, an in-built camera allows students to photograph apparatus and experiments set up for future portfolios and create videos or take still images for art projects. Phones are also convenient for timing experiments and making calculations. Finally, thanks to their portability mobile phones open new possibilities to support learning outside of the classroom, such as during fieldwork (Welsh & France, 2020).
Overall, results from studies addressing the effects of smartphone use on academic performance are not congruent and reveal negative, positive and zero effects (Amez & Baert, 2020;Baert et al., 2020; Gorjón & Osés, 2023; Kates et al., 2018; Sunday et al., 2021). This might occur because most of the evidence available relies on cross-sectional data and correlational analysis (Orben, 2020). In other words, most studies have just explored the relationships between ‘smartphone use’ and ‘academic performance’ without establishing the direction of causality.
Without rigorous study designs and analysis, it is not possible to draw conclusions about the causality between screen time and child outcomes. Correlational studies do not consider the “variation in unobserved personal characteristics, such as intelligence, general ability, and motivation, which these studies did not control for, but which could affect both smartphone use and academic performance” (Baert et al., 2020, p. 24). There is also variation due to the type of study design, targeted predictor and outcome (i.e., measures of ‘smartphone use’ and ‘academic performance’), type of students and cultural issues (Amez & Baert, 2020; Gorjón & Osés, 2023; Kates et al., 2018).
Overall, systematic reviews focused on the potential impacts of smartphones on academic performance have indicated a small effect size for negative impacts (Amez & Baert, 2020; Kates et al., 2018; Sunday et al., 2021). This is probably more related to an association rather than a causal relationship (Kates et al., 2018).
In summary – there is currently insufficient research evidence to support the proposed benefits of a mobile phone ban in schools. First the proposed outcome or benefit should be clearly stated – is this academic performance, pupil behaviour and wellbeing, school attendance or other benefits? – and weighed against the potential costs or harms. Crucially, rigorous research should underpin such a policy. Specifically, we recommend a government-funded national cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT) of phone bans in schools.
3. Social media and other screen based activities bring both benefits and risk of harm to children’s wellbeing and mental health
Pilot findings from Digital Youth’s DIORA project suggest that while overall screen time is weakly related to adolescent depression, online risky experiences are more clearly related to adolescent depression while entertaining social media uses are linked to positive wellbeing.
Qualitative research with adolescents experiencing internet-related mental health difficulties shows both that their difficult life circumstances and prior mental health difficulties lead adolescents into at-times extreme or risky online spaces and yet that their difficulties are precisely what also means they value and need the support, information, help, community, recognition and sense of belonging that they can find online. A literature review of other research on these questions broadly confirms this finding (see also Hollis et al., 2020; Lupton, 2021).
Like research on “screen time,” research on social media use and adolescent mental health is riven with methodological problems. For example, Keles et. al., (2020) found correlations between screen time and depression/anxiety but commented that “there are considerable caveats due to methodological limitations of cross-sectional design, sampling and measures. Mechanisms of the putative effects of social media on mental health should be explored further through qualitative enquiry and longitudinal cohort studies.” Odgers and Jensen (2020) observe that even “The most recent and rigorous large-scale preregistered studies report small associations between the amount of daily digital technology usage and adolescents’ well-being that do not offer a way of distinguishing cause from effect and, as estimated, are unlikely to be of clinical or practical significance.”
The Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study is an NIH-funded longitudinal study that follows 10,000 American children aged 9-10 for 10 years (org). Currently, up to 4-year follow-up data has been released with varying completeness. Screen use was assessed annually with a Screen Time Questionnaire. The baseline and 1-year follow up only included categorised screen time. The 2-year follow-up onward includes more detailed modalities, hour/minute numbers, addiction scores, social media usage, dating app usage, mature-rated content usage, and night-time and sleep-related questions (see summary of ABCD screen use measurement and a list of the 30 studies that have used ABCD screen time data). Findings show that:
Multiple factors which are unlikely to be affected by screen time are correlated with it (e.g., adverse childhood experience (Raney 2023), parental psychological problems (Pulkki-Råback 2022), household income (Assari 2020, Nagata 2022)), suggesting that high screen time can be a symptom of prior disadvantage and possibly also a coping tool (insofar as disadvantage is linked to stress and poor mental health).
Multiple factors which could be affected by screen time show mixed results. Greater screen time is linked with some adverse outcomes (poor sleep (Hisler 2020), higher BMI (Nagata 2023), binge eating (Nagata 2021) and certain other disorders) though effect sizes are generally small or very small, especially when appropriate controls are applied; in several studies, socioeconomic status plays a greater role in accounting for adverse effects than does screen time.
This “significant but weak” relationship trend from the large population data may be because any risk associated with screen time is not linear or continuous but thresholded: in short, it may not be possible to differentiate the effects of 0 hour vs 1 hour vs 2 hours of gaming daily, but gaming that exceeds a threshold of, say, 6 hours, may make a discernible difference. Instead of simply reducing screen time, therefore, we should focus on specific, problematic uses of digital media, and the circumstances that give rise to such uses among particular groups of children.
4. Conclusions and recommendations
For many adolescents, mobile phones have become functionally indispensable tools, helping them to organise daily lives and perform many essential and routine tasks (e.g., paying a train or bus fare on a commute to school), as well as to feel safe and connected to parents and significant others. Schools have adapted to the increased digitalisation and embraced digital technology to use it routinely for communication with parents and students and in pedagogical practice to support and enhance teaching and learning in the classroom (e.g., digital whiteboards, laptops, tablets, etc.). This brings both positives and negatives, as evidence shows.
Building on the unfolding research conducted by Digital Youth, and the insights of its researchers, advisors and youth panel, we have developed a series of practical recommendations for improving online mental health. These recognise that improving children’s online mental health is a complex challenge that requires action from multiple stakeholders including the Department for Education as well as other government departments, technology companies, health service providers, civil society actors, training providers and researchers. These recommendations have already been shared with the Number 10 Policy Unit, and we commend them to your attention. See https://digitalyouth.ac.uk/digital-youth-recommendations-for-improving-online-mental-health/
On the specific question of a mobile phone ban in school, we note the conclusions of UNESCO’s 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report (which has been widely misunderstood since its many pages of substantial evidence do not result in calling for a ban). Rather, UNESCO notes considerable concerns around the world, especially with the idea of a blanket ban. Hence its recommendations are, rightly in our view, more nuanced (p.157):
“Banning technology from schools can be legitimate if technology integration does not improve learning or if it worsens student well-being. Yet, working with technology in schools, and the accompanying risks, may require something more than banning.”
“Students need to learn the risks and opportunities that come with technology, develop critical skills, and understand how to live with and without technology. Shielding students from new and innovative technology can put them at a disadvantage.”
Since there is insufficient evidence that a mobile phone ban in schools would benefit children’s education, we recommend that the UK Government, in support of evidence-based policy, should fund a national cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT) of phone bans in schools, to rigorously assess both potential positive and negative outcomes – encompassing academic performance, e-learning opportunities, pupil behaviour and wellbeing, cyberbullying, school attendance and carry-over effects on family life.
This consultation response is submitted on behalf of Digital Youth with Sprouting Minds. Key contributors were:
● Dr Jake Bourgaize, King’s College London
● Professor Chris Hollis, University of Nottingham
● Dr Kasia Kostyrka-Allchorne, Queen Mary University of London
● Dr Sieun Lee, University of Nottingham
● Dr Josimar Mendes, University of Oxford
● Dr Mariya Stoilova, London School of Economics and Political Science
● Professor Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics and Political Science (lead author)
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