Higher Education


Does Mobile Learning Fuel Mobile Addiction?

By Henry Kronk
December 03, 2018

The use of mobile devices for educational purposes inside and outside of classrooms has grown drastically in popularity in recent years. At the same time, concerns over screen time, use of social media, the rapidly accelerating rates of teen suicide, and device addiction have also come to the fore. Some have suggested or implied a causal relationship exists between the two phenomena. But is there research to back up such a claim? Does mobile learning lead to mobile addiction?

To begin, the advent of mobile addiction is very real. It is identified using similar criteria to other behavioral addictions, like gambling and video games. The authors of a 2016 NCBI study, using DSM-5 criteria for addiction, provide a table of symptoms that indicate mobile addiction.

Mobile Addiction and Nomophobia

A quick Google search reveals hundreds of investigations—conducted by academics, journalists, and others—into the advent of mobile addiction. An overwhelming amount confirm its presence.

A 2014 study conducted by a team led by Olatz Lopez-Fernandez found that 10% of U.K. youths aged 11-14 displayed mobile addiction. For Indian learners of the same age, the figure stood somewhere between 39-44%.

The negative effects can fall broadly into three different categories: social, physiological, and psychological. This is not the place to look for an exhaustive list. But to highlight the effects of mobile addiction, in a 2015 survey of Alabama University students, a majority ‘strongly agreed’ with the following statements:

I feel safer when I have my phone with me (88%).

I sleep with my phone within arm’s reach (86%).

I would panic if I lost my phone (81%).

I would be upset if I left my phone at home (77%).

I often find that I use my phone longer than I had intended (73%).

I never turn off my phone (70%).

I feel disconnected when I do not have my phone (68%).

I need my phone at all times (67%).

I would feel alone without my phone (66%).

I think I hear my phone even when it makes no sound (63%).

Because I am afraid I am going to miss something, I regularly check my phone (62%).

I use my phone as a way of escaping from problems or relieving a bad mood (55%).

We as a society have grown so attached to our phones in some cases that psychologists have a word for the anxiety one feels without it: nomophobia, as in the fear of ‘no more phone.’

Potentially more troubling, the rate of teen suicide ideation (thinking about suicide) and attempts has drastically increased in the the past few years. Health professionals still do not know why, but some have speculated that social media and mobile phone use are to blame.

One thing, however, is clear: rates are far higher while school is in session.

Many schools provide mobile devices and even encourage phone use in class for educational purposes.

While Mobile Addiction Is Prevalent, Many Still Push for Mobile Devices in the Classroom

Earlier in November, Jon Landis, who heads the Education department at Apple—a company that has a new classroom-focused iPad out this year along with numerous existing mobile learning initiatives—took the stage at the State Education Technology Directors Association conference. He said that mobile learning is “shifting the paradigm” ok K-12 education.

“This is about holding students accountable to the world that they are growing up in and more importantly, the world they’re going to be in,” he said according to Edscoop. “Their future is not the same as ours was growing up, it’s remarkably different. And it’s not just what we’re using to teach — it’s how we’re teaching and who.”

Are these remarks misplaced? Is handing a mobile device to a young learner like buying them their first pack of cigarette?

It turns out that a few teams of researchers have already asked this question.

What Does the Research Say?

In 2017, Professors Neil Davie and Tobias Hilber surveyed a body of 104 students at South Westphalia University of Applied Sciences in Meschede, Germany. Every single one owned a smartphone and 99% said they regularly had their devices with them in class. 95%, furthermore, said they used their smartphones for educational purposes either in or out of class.

Using a method of survey developed at Iowa State University, the survey asked respondents a series of questions and gave them a score between 0 and 140 based on their answers. A score between 0 and 60 indicated mild- to no nomophobia. 61-100 represented moderate nomophobic behavior. 100 and above indicated severe nomophobia.

The majority of respondents (60) were found to be mildly nomophobic. 41 had a moderate case of the anxiety. Just 3 were found to have severe nomophobia and no students had no trace of the anxiety. This leads the authors to conclude that “nomophobia is a serious problem for only a small group of students.”

A 2013 study provides an alternative by looking instead at students’ attitudes toward mobile-supplemented learning at a secondary school in the U.K. that had provided learners with Apple iPod Touch devices. The researchers simultaneously compared these perspectives to learners at another school where mobile use is expressly forbidden.

The study involved several different means of collecting information, including an online survey, diary entries, and in-class observation and interviews. 325 leaners answered the online survey while significantly fewer journaled or participated in an interview. The school that encouraged mobile was called Academy M while the other was dubbed Academy A. The researchers unearthed many unexpected findings.

To begin, they found that even though devices were banned at Academy A, 43% of learners reported bringing them anyway and using them for learning purposes. A much larger percentage likely brought them in for covert extracurricular use. Meanwhile, 73% of respondents at Academy M used their devices for education, a figure that administrators at the school had hope would be higher.

Use of devices for educational purposes spanned a wide range of categories, including listening to podcasts, watching videos, using a calendar or planning app, emailing, and accessing the internet.

When asked ‘How much do you feel a mobile device helps your learning?,’ the overwhelming majority at both schools answered either ‘A Bit’ or ‘A Lot.’ This was roughly 70% at Academy A and 85% at Academy M. A slightly smaller majority at both schools also believed that devices should be used in class.

As one student put it: Without this [showing iPad], I don’t think I would be where I am right now, because it’s helped me hugely with all my stuff. When we never used to have this, I’ll be honest, I was on Grade D’s. But now, cos I’ve got this, I’m on Grade A’s and B’s. It’s a great opportunity.

The authors conclude by writing, “There is clear evidence that many pupils feel that they are deriving educational benefit from the use of their devices. They are using many of the features of their devices and often finding creative ways to employ these features in their schoolwork, both at home and at school. The findings raise questions for Secondary leadership and educators. In those schools which still impose a ‘‘ban’’, is it necessary?”

The two studies above, therefore, indicate that device use in the classroom is mostly beneficial. But at the same time, they rely on very small sample sizes to land on these conclusions. Much more investigation is needed into the subject, there is still much we do not know.

Featured Image: Rodion Kutsaev, Unsplash.