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Early mobile phone ownership could lead to academic deficiency – study

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Recent research indicates those children who own mobile phones at an earlier age will go on to perform less well academically versus their peers who do not.

The Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland research paper, titled “Later is better: Mobile phone ownership and child academic development, evidence from a longitudinal study” was published in the journal “Economics of Innovation and New Technology” on 20 December 2018. From the outset the project had two purposes: to examine “whether there is an association between early mobile phone ownership and academic outcomes and whether delaying mobile phone ownership benefits the development of children’s academic skills.”

It used the data of 8,500 nine-year-old students in Ireland, then followed their development till they reach 13-year-old. By this time, the researchers compared the academic performance of those who already owned mobile phones when the project started with that of those who owned mobile phones later. The results showed those had mobile phones earlier fell behind their peers in both maths and reading by about a 4 percentile scale.

Therefore, to answer the first question, the researcher believed there is a negative correlation between the students’ starting age of mobile phone ownership and their academic performance when they reach adolescence. The researchers did not give a definite yes or no answer to the second question, though the title of the published report suggests they are leaning towards the Yes side, i.e. delaying mobile phone ownership would benefit the children’s academic skill development.

However, if this indeed is what the researchers believed, here is a leap of faith. To start with, the researchers claimed that “the findings suggest that there may be significant educational costs arising from early mobile phone use by children.”  The existence of a correlation does not mean there is a causal relationship. The researchers admitted that other socio-economic factors are involved in the children’s development. These factors may have been “taken account of” in the analysis, they are very hard to be controlled and a causal relationship is very hard to establish.

The researchers then went on to suggest that “parents and policymakers should consider whether the benefits of phone availability for children are sufficiently large to justify such costs.” Here is another problem. Even if there were a causal relationship between an early mobile phone ownership and impaired academic advancement, it could not lead to the logical conclusion that delayed mobile phone ownership would improve the children’s academic performance.

Thanks to its near ubiquity and the reduced age of ownership, mobile phones have become an easy target for educators as well as politicians. The researchers commended the former Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, when he “asked schools to consult with parents and students to make decisions on the place of smart phones and personal devices in school.” The French President Emmanuel Macron went much further and much faster: during the election campaign he pledged an outright ban on mobile phone use in all primary and secondary schools and was supported by the legislature after he assumed the presidency. He did not hesitate to blow his own trumpet:

On the other hand, most parents and schools in Estonia and Finland do not seem to have any problems with children already having mobile phones when they start primary school at the age of seven. Various reports have indicated that not only do the majority of first graders come to school with mobile phones, many of them are actually using low-end smartphones. Incidentally these two countries have consistently outperformed any other European countries in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 15-year-old students’ knowledge and skills in science, maths, and reading. So far, no researcher has attributed their strong academic performance to early mobile phone ownership.


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