Mobile phone addiction
Brain scans have shown excessive screen time has resulted in premature shrinking of the cortex in some children. These changes could affect regions responsible for language skills, attention, and cognitive control. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

The Netherlands has become the latest country to ban digital devices in classrooms. Mobile phones, tablets, and smartwatches will be banned from the classrooms from 2024. Devices will be allowed only in case of specific situations – for medical reasons or pupils with disabilities.

The move has renewed the debate on the effects of mobile phones on students. Here we look at issues involved, with comments from parents, psychologists, and experts.

Let’s start with a case study.

How a 14-year-old girl got out of her phone addiction

Nina (name changed to protect identity), a 14-year-old female child, was brought to me by her parents with symptoms of extreme anxiety and depression, said Marisa Lobo Biddappa, a Dubai-based Counsellor and Psychologist.

Mixed Anxiety and Depressive Disorder

She was a bright student, a good singer, and had been a friendly girl up till her 7th Grade. Her parents noticed a drastic change in her personality towards the end of Grade 8. She stopped waking up for school, stopped attending her music classes, and would sit in her room all the time. She had also become snappy and argumentative with them and her brother. Her teachers complained that she was often daydreaming, looked fatigued and her grades had dropped significantly. After a detailed case history and assessment, she was diagnosed initially with Mixed Anxiety and Depressive Disorder, said Marissa.

'Nina also started getting anxious'

"Further assessment revealed that she had a mobile phone addiction as her symptoms fit with the DSM5 criteria for behavioural addictions (gambling disorder). Nina was gifted a cell phone by her dad on her 11th birthday. When she was 12 years, her friends introduced her to WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snap Chat. Subsequently, she started interacting through this medium. She soon became obsessed with it and spent all her after-school time on it which amounted to 8-9 hours. She started using apps to morph her image and got into online relationships with unknown guys. She developed a crush on some of them and started getting depressed because she could not meet them. Nina also started getting anxious especially in class when she could not check her messages and reports that at times she got palpitations when she could not check her phone. Her teacher had threatened to confiscate her phone," said Marissa.

Therapy started

She was taken up for therapy. "I used an eclectic approach starting on a psychoanalytic line to help her work through her defence mechanisms of denial, rationalization, and projection, identify and deal with her emotions and instill a need to develop healthy interactions."

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

After a few sessions, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) was used to help her become aware of her excessive phone usage, and understand the vicious cycle of her thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, explained Marissa.

"She was helped to develop self-awareness, which took about 6 months of weekly sessions. After initial reluctance to reduce her phone time, she became more compliant once she realized that her addiction had interfered with her focus and resulted in a drastic drop in her grades. Deep breathing and muscular relaxation exercises were taught to help her relax. Once she became cognitively aware, she was taught techniques to cope with her craving and learn self-control. CBT also helped to reduce her anxiety and depressive symptoms. Cognitive restructuring was used to change her way of thinking, feeling, and behaviour. She was helped to identify high-risk situations where she used her phone excessively and taught ways to avoid those situations, divert her mind, replace any unhelpful thoughts with positive thoughts, and improve her interaction with family members and peers," said the psychologist.

Out of addiction completely and using her phone responsibly

Parents were also involved in the therapy and were asked to restrict and monitor her usage. She was enrolled back into her music classes. Badminton classes were also started. It took a little over a year and three months for her to get over the addiction completely and use her phone responsibly. She is now in Grade 12, working hard to get better grades to get into engineering in a good college and her relationship with her parents and brother has improved, said Marissa.

Watch: Dubai-based psychologist on causes and prevention of mobile phone addiction

Cellphone addiction Symptoms
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

What mobile phones do to children in their formative years

Extensive studies have been conducted on the impact of digital device use on the human brain and it has been found excessive screen time can affect everything from sleep to creativity in a significant manner. For students and adolescents going through brain development it is more crucial.

Trouble with sleep

Excessive screen time disrupts sleep and messes up the body clock. Light from digital screens suppresses melatonin, a brain hormone that plays a crucial role in controlling our sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels typically rise in the evening and decrease in the morning. A few minutes of screen time can delay melatonin release by several hours and thus desynchronize our body clock. This in turn creates other unhealthy reactions including hormone imbalance and brain complications.

Altering the brain structure

Too much screen time desensitizes the brain's reward system. Children are glued to their digital devices as the activity releases the feel-good hormone dopamine which can be addictive. When this reward system is overused they become less sensitive over time, which demands more stimulation to experience pleasure.

Structural changes have also been reported due to screen time. Brain scans have shown excessive screen time has resulted in premature shrinking of the cortex in some children, the US National Institues of Health reported, quoting an Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. These changes could affect regions responsible for language skills, attention, and cognitive control.

Mood changes

A number of clinical studies have shown that heavy screen use, especially on social media platforms, increasees depression, anxiety and even aggression in children and adolescents. Constant distraction from these devices is also said to cause a lack of capability to feel deep emotions or empathy.

Addiction like behaviour

Heavy screen use, especially social media and video games, can generate patterns similar to addiction. Human brain releases dopamine in response to any pleasurable experience. When someone derives pleasure while playing or winning a video game or during interaction on social media, the brain releases dopamine, which forces the person to frequently return to the activity, making them addicted to it.

Watch: UAE-based parents on children using mobile phones


Striking a balance is the key

In a world where a cell phone is considered an extension of the self, it is futile to argue in favour of a blanket ban on the device in schools.

Nothing perhaps comes close to the smartphone if you are talking about a tool that provides ease of communication. Whether it is for parents to stay connected with the students or vice versa or for schools to send en masse messages to students or parents, the instant reach that the mobile phone allows ensures much comfort.

Having said this, however, there is no taking away from the fact that a smartphone can also be a huge source of distraction. Indiscriminate access to websites and social media platforms can also pose a danger to the safety and well-being of children.

The key, therefore, is to be able to strike a balance. This can be achieved by allowing students to carry a smartphone, but with due controls in place.

Responsible use of the mobile phone is something parents are duty-bound to teach their children. With many students invariably trying to cross the line, it is equally essential for parents to make sure the access is controlled.

In other words, students must be allowed to carry their smartphones to school, but not without checks and balances.

– Sharmila Dhal, UAE Editor

What are the harmful effects of mobile phones on students?

1. Poor vision: Constant staring at mobile phones affects eyesight and health.

2. Lack of focus: Mobile phones are highly distracting since students spend a lot of time on them. It distracts them from studies and sports.

3. Poor academic performance: Distraction from studies can result in poor academic performance. Phone addiction can lead to dullness, lethargy and even memory lapses, worsening a bad situation.

4. Mental health problems: Poor academic performance leads to isolation. Students may withdraw from friends and family, which can seriously impact their mental health.

5. Reduced social interaction: More time on social media means less time with friends and families. That deprives them of social interactions that could resolve many emotional issues.

6. Cyberbullying: Students lack the experience to deal with cybercrimes and cyberbullying. This could lead to anxiety and depression. Gaming apps can also cause stress.

7. Lack of physical activity: Excessive time spent on phones denies students the opportunity to play sports or pursue other leisure activities. This affects their physical development, and they will lack the mental strength to compete and perform under stress.

8. Other health issues: Spending lots of time on mobile devices increases the risk of bad posture, neck and backache, and tendonitis or repetitive strain injury. It’s worrying since the bodies of young people are still developing, which can lead to complications later in life.

9. Cancer risk: Medical opinion on the effects of electromagnetic radiation on health is divided. But the World Health Organisation has found a reasonable link between phone use and increased cancer risk.

10. Sleep loss: Excessive phone use can disrupt sleep. The blue light emitted by phones keeps the brain awake, and electromagnetic radiation affects the natural sleep pattern, causing sleeplessness.

11. Accidents: Using phones while walking or crossing the street are common among students. This raises the risk of accidents.

12. Inappropriate content: Students are too young to comprehend the effects of inappropriate content online. As a result, they can develop ideas and beliefs detrimental to society.

In my opinion strict controls regarding mobile phones in schools must be put in place. We have seen the benefits of such controls resulting in improved academic outcomes and decrease bullying in many countries…

- Zeana Haider, an Australian mother of two

What are the benefits of school children using mobile phones?

Mobile phones help in constant learning. Knowledge now can be acquired anytime, anywhere. Here are some uses of cellphones for students; some are game changers, and others are merely aids.

1. Portable communication: Communication is the primary function of mobile phones. It’s cheap, fast, and portable. Students can use phones anywhere with a cellphone network to keep in touch with parents and friends. They can talk to tutors and other students to help with coursework.

2. Information bank: Mobile phones can store large amounts of data. Books, magazines, and other sources of information can be kept on phones for later reading. Many devices are equipped with eReaders.

3. Mobile internet access: Mobile phones allow for wireless internet connection. So students can access online content without computers.

4. Digital library: Internet access provides the highway to information online. That includes a wide variety of educational websites, reference material, and research worldwide.

5. More learning tools: Many educational apps, including dictionaries, translators, and other learning tools like multimedia resources, are available.

6. Entertainment: Online streaming of music, movies, and games provides entertainment. Music and videos can be stored on phones for later viewing. There are also several apps for games.

7. Security: Mobile phones are helpful during emergencies to call hotlines, relatives, or friends. Since these devices have map apps and GPS locators, it helps find routes or even broadcast the user’s location.

8. Cameras: Phones have good cameras too. It can capture high-quality images of coursework, which can be shared easily. Video footages of lab experiments are also helpful.

9. Digital assistant: Calendars, alarms and reminders on phones are convenient for students, especially when chasing deadlines. The Address Book or Contacts and calculators too are convenient.

10. Fitness tracker: For fitness enthusiasts among students, apps help maintain a record of their activities, allowing them to set targets in pursuit of excellence.

Mobile phone addiction checklist
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News


Early exposure is helpful

Children should know how to use smartphones and should have periodic supervised access to the devices. My 7-year-old can now connect with her grandparents in Delhi via Botim, log herself into Zoom for her online class, share her screen when requested, and also check emails for links that I save for her, all without any adult helping her out. At the same time, she gets wary when she clicks on an advertisement on YouTube that navigates her away from the platform. She knows not to click on them. She also knows that when teachers and parents don’t have satisfactory answers to her questions, some expert on the internet does, with video and graphics.

The devices she uses have strict parental controls in place, so the risks of her accessing content not suitable for her age are negligible. As parents, we only need to guide her on which internet platforms provide authentic, verified content, and which ones she should stay clear of.

With learning in schools also significantly including audio-video tools, and assignments taking place over interactive websites, where deft touch, drag, and swipe skills come in handy, early exposure to smart devices is only helpful.

– Anupam Varma, Assistant Editor - Business

Which are the countries that banned mobile phones for students?

Distractions, poor student performance, cheating during exams, theft and health issues are some reasons for banning mobile phones in school. These are some of the countries that have prohibited phones for schoolchildren.

United States: New York City banned mobile phones in schools in 2006, but it was lifted in 2015. In 2020, the US National Center for Education Statistics reported that 77 per cent of schools had banned mobiles for non-academic purposes.

China: Since 2021, there’s been a countrywide ban on children bringing mobile phones to schools. Written parental consent is essential for students to take phones to school.

France: In September 2018, lawmakers outlawed cellphone use for schoolchildren under 15.

Australia: The state of Victoria announced in July that mobile phones will be banned for students in state primary and secondary schools. New South Wales has banned phones from primary schools since 2019.

The Netherlands: Mobile phones, tablets, and smartwatches will be banned from classrooms on January 1, 2024. Students with medical needs or a disability and classes focusing on digital skills will be exempted.

Finland: In July, Finland moved to pass the necessary legislation to ban mobile phones in schools.

Germany: In Germany´s Bavaria, although mobile phones have been banned in schools since 2006, the state has relaxed it recently. In the other 15 states, schools are free to decide on imposing a ban.

Italy: A complete ban on the use of mobile phones in schools took effect in December 2022. Teachers collect phones from students at the start of the day.

Greece: Students are legally forbidden from using mobile phones on school premises.

Malaysia: It is a disciplinary offence for students to bring their phones to school and its dormitories.

Turkmenistan: Since 2020, secondary schools have banned the use of mobile phones. It applies to schoolchildren and teachers.

Ireland: Eight primary schools in the Irish town of Greystones have teamed to prevent the use of smartphones by children until they reach secondary school.

Others: Debates on a possible ban are also taking place in Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

From my point of view there is no question that cell phones and tablets are a distraction in class and can be a true detriment to the ability to concentrate and learn.

- Thomas Koenig, American expat in Dubai
Mobile phone, tablet laptop  comparison
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News


The screen is not the source of all things evil

“These kids - they don’t listen to us. They don’t talk to us. They don’t pay attention to what we are saying to them or what is happening around them. They are always glued to their screens. Looking at it or doing things with it. They have no social skills. They don’t play with each other. They don’t talk to each other. What is going to happen to them? When we were kids, we were so happy playing with other kids. All day long and never wanted to get inside the house.”

These are the common refrain of parents. That is, when they are lifting their brooding faces from the mobile phones, tablets, or another device of choice on which they work, network, or seek refuge from their immediate surrounding.

The deceptive double standards apart, it is as if the children had invented the digital device with the devilish screen. Suddenly the screen has become the single source of all things evil. The screen is the new nicotine. Or is it?

The eyes are our most important organ, in terms of perception of the world or reality. As much as 80 per cent of all our impressions about reality is perceived through sight. The remaining four sensory organs - skin, ears, nose, and tongue- contribute only 20 per cent all put together. How can one turn a blind eye to this stark reality and ask the children to ditch the screen, which is bringing information, knowledge, stimulation, and entertainment to them at a pace faster than humanity has ever experienced?

Not logical, but then most of the things that parents do are not, right? Humans tend to be over protective of their progenies than any other species and that might have contributed to our survival as one but I feel we are overdoing it here. By limiting their experience and explorations with the digital screen and the experience explosion provided by them, we are forcing the children to confine to our own little worlds we have experienced some 30 to 50 years back.

We are at a transformative age in terms of evolution and the future human beings will be shaped by the devices that we have invented. We don’t have to make Frankensteins out of everything. One little tech advance can take our civilization way forward. Have we ever thought of the impact rechargeable lithium batteries have on the quality of our lives? We probably don’t need the rote learning that we were so proud of. Vast amounts of data are now available on screen in a moment and they can be dissected and analyzed in nanoseconds, accurate to a level humanly impossible. Our brain can then be freed of this junk information and left to focus on the decision-making part. Reading and storing data in our brains are overrated, perhaps. It certainly has no future as AI has proved.

There may be no need to worry about screen time as long as it prevents the kids from doing any harm to themselves or others. Human history is a progressive one. We started from almost nothing and bit by bit built our knowledge, experience, awareness of the world, communications, health, science, and space travel - with each generation better than the previous one. While it is natural for the older generations to overly worry about anything new, the course of our evolution has always been determined by the newest generation. Perhaps the 'concerned' oldies should take a chill pill and have some patience.

– Jaya Chandran, Online Editor