For professionals

Cell phone use in class: A summary of current knowledge

By the PAUSE Team

image avec un cellulaire, un sac à dos et des livres d'école

As you are likely aware, cell phone use in primary and secondary schools is the subject of much debate, and its advantages and disadvantages are a hot topic of discussion! Here are the main findings of a literature review on the subject to give you some insight.

Carolanne Campeau is a screen use risk prevention advisor for PAUSE, as well as a doctoral student in health sciences research at the Université de Sherbrooke. As part of her studies, she conducted a literature review on the use of personal mobile devices in the classroom (including tablets and cell phones) to summarize the current knowledge on the subject.

Positive and negative aspects of cell phone use in class

On the issue of personal mobile devices in the classroom, research shows both sides of the coin. On the one hand, some studies report that these devices facilitate access to educational resources and student engagement in the learning process. On the other hand, several studies show that they are a source of distraction likely to affect academic performance and worsen problems such as cyberbullying and cheating.

“ As a number of studies have shown, the effects of using personal mobile devices at school vary according to several factors. For example, the age of the students, their special needs (e.g., learning difficulties), their technological skills, and the policies governing the use of personal devices in their school all need to be taken into account. ”

Carolanne Campeau

Confusing guidelines for cell phone use in the classroom

In 2018, the ministère de l’Éducation launched a Digital Action Plan to promote academic success, which initiated a digital transition in Quebec schools. However, at the end of 2023, it banned personal mobile devices in classrooms (including primary and secondary schools) while giving teachers the option of authorizing them for educational purposes, but without providing any further clarifications.

These government guidelines can be confusing for students. Not to mention the conflicting messages they receive from school staff, who at times encourage them to use technological devices for educational purposes, and at other times caution them on the risks of intensive use.

5 recommendations on cell phone use in the classroom

Based on the information gathered in her literature review, Carolanne Campeau makes five recommendations for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks of personal mobile devices in the school setting.

1. Clarify what the educational use of these devices entails.

Defining specific educational objectives, for example by the governing board, would make it easier for teachers to recognize the appropriate uses of cell phones in the classroom. These clarifications should then be clearly communicated to students who use these devices.

2. Train teachers in new technologies.

At present, not all teaching staff have the same level of skills and general knowledge about technology. This inequality has a negative influence on the impact that screen use can have on students, increasing the likelihood of harmful effects. Ideally, therefore, teaching practices should be developed that exploit the benefits of devices used in the school setting while minimizing their risks.

3. Develop and implement specific education programs on appropriate screen use in collaboration with students, parents, and teachers.

Education in the use of devices should be offered as early as primary school, and could focus on:

  • Teaching skills that promote more responsible and productive screen use in a learning context, but also recreational use that is positive, mindful, safe, and balanced.
  • Teaching practical skills, such as mastering basic device functions, browsing the Internet, using educational apps, online collaboration, and content creation.
  • Raising young people’s awareness of issues related to privacy, online safety, the fight against cyberbullying, and healthy screen time management.

This could take the form of formal courses, activities integrated into the curriculum, interactive workshops, and discussions on ethical issues and online resources.

4. Make devices available to all students to reduce inequalities in access to technology and digital skills.

A Quebec survey (in French only) reports a decline in the number of schools with traditional computer labs (53% in 2021 vs. 39% in 2023). Yet limited access to technology may lead young people to use their personal mobile devices in class, which carries greater risk.

5. Evaluate the various policies governing the use of devices in schools.

The results would provide a better understanding of its impact on young people, reveal the most effective practices, and ensure a framework that promotes student well-being, all without increasing disparities in access to technology and digital skills. Indeed, several studies highlight the lack of rigorous research on the general consequences of screen use in the classroom as well as the factors that influence these effects.

Screen use: A collective responsibility

These recommendations aim to encourage reflection among stakeholders in order to identify courses of action to improve risk prevention practices related to the use of personal mobile devices in the school setting.

“ Shaping a future where our young people are equipped to use their devices in a positive and informed way is a collective responsibility. Together, we can rise to this challenge, which will improve the well-being of our young people and our society as a whole. ”

Carolanne Campeau